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Learn about researching your ancestors and visiting their times

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Linda Roorda

Who among us isn’t fascinated by the steam trains of yesteryear?  As the big locomotives and cars rumble past, you can’t help but wonder where they’ve been and where they’re headed.  To feel the pulsing ground vibrations of an old steam engine as it chuffs down the track, to see huge billows of smoke and steam with cinders and ash in the air, to smell the smoke and oil, and hear the blowing of the whistle and clanging of the bell all make the heart beat just a little faster!  The train’s a’comin’!


Constructing model trains was a hobby of my dad’s, along with setting up a track and miniature town for display.  I remember watching him when I was in kindergarten as he built a passenger car with its tiny pieces.  In the mid to late 1960s, I also enjoyed it when he took us kids on the annual drive to a small, non-descript building in Carlstadt, New Jersey.  There, our eyes were opened to a whole ‘nother world as both O (1/4” scale) and HO (1/8” scale) gauge trains were set up in working displays.  And, many a youngster has been thrilled to open the much-anticipated Christmas gift of a model train set like these!


At the Carlstadt Model Engineers Association’s display (341 Hoboken Rd, Carlstadt, NJ 07072), the HO-gauge trains run through small towns, farming communities and mountain passes – with sound effects of the old locomotives.  It’s not huge by any means, encompassing two rooms, but it’s a fantastic setup nonetheless.  Check out their website for photos, videos and further information.  


My dad, Ralph Visscher, was born to Dutch immigrants in Kalamazoo, Michigan, but grew up in Clifton, New Jersey next to the train tracks, where he developed his love for the old steam engines.  Clifton had two train stations – one for the Erie Railroad and one for the Delaware, Lackawanna & Western Railroad.  Eventually, they consolidated as the Erie-Lackawanna Railroad in 1960.  We lived opposite the closed Erie station in the latter 1960s, a great paved playground for us kids; but it has since been demolished like many others, the loss of a priceless piece of history.


In speaking with my father while writing this article in 2014, he told me, “Steam engines were doing a great job, getting better and better, especially when the Big Boy locomotives were developed and used out west.”  He told me their wheel designation was 4-8-8-4, which I’d learned from my research so I knew exactly what he was talking about.  He explained, “They had a front 4-wheeled truck to stabilize the engine on the curves, followed by 8 driving wheels, another set of 8 drivers, and a rear 4-wheeled truck underneath the engine’s firebox with the tender car coupled behind that.  Tenders carried the train’s fuel [coal, wood or oil] and water.  The Big Boys were used to pull freight cars a mile or more in length over the western mountains.” 


In the 1940s after World War II, he added that it was determined diesel engines could do a better job and go faster than the old steam engines.  “But, actually, a steam locomotive could accelerate faster from a standing start than diesels, which were slower to get started; once they got up to speed though, the diesels could travel much faster than steam engines.”  By 1950, he said, the railroad companies had switched all their locomotives to diesel.  “But, now and then you might see a rare steam engine being used on the track just because it was available.”


My dad also explained that steam locomotives needed a tremendous amount of water to create steam from the burning fuel.  For example, in The Great Book of Railways, I learned that the Big Boys used “22 tons of coal and 44 tons of water every hour.” (p.20)  Clean-burning anthracite coal from Pennsylvania mines was used to fuel steam engines in the eastern U.S. with coal from Wyoming used for the western trains.  I was surprised to hear my dad say that oil was also used for trains out west because of the availability, but with the proximity of oil wells that makes sense.  “And, water tanks,” he added, “were set up every so many miles along with places to take on more coal.  Some trains used extra tenders to carry additional fuel needed for their run.  And, sometimes, to get a train up a mountain, more than one engine was coupled together to haul the freight cars up, or they used pusher locomotives at the rear of the cars.”


And then my dad, who never passes up the opportunity to tell a good story, shared this one about a well-seasoned engineer running a steam locomotive with a long line of cars.  They’d just hired a new young fireman on the crew.  As the train pulled up to a water tower, the engineer placed the tender exactly in position to take on water.  Pulling the chain on the gantry (crane), the young fireman filled the tender.  When he was done, he released the chain, took a look in the tender to check the water level and fell in, yelling for help, paddling to stay afloat, wondering how long it would take for them to get him out of there.  After a while the old engineer strolled back to see what was taking so long.  Peering into the tender, he pondered the sight that met his eyes, and calmly said, “You know, son… you don’t need to tamp the water down!”


I have to admit – I really enjoy researching and writing articles for the learning I gain in the process, but this article was one of my absolute favorites as it meant so much to my Dad who was on Hospice at the time of this writing (passing away in April 2015).  And it carries childhood memories of time spent with my dad at the train shows.  So, come along and together we’ll learn the history of those grand old iron horses, the steam locomotives.


Looking back to the start of the 19th century, life was moving forward at a relatively slow pace.  The times still invoked thoughts of the century past in every-day life, but now there was a sense of optimism in our new nation.  And, if they could only have known of the many improvements to come in the new century, they’d have shaken their heads in disbelief, just as our view backward amazes us at how far we’ve come.


Since the invention of the wheel, man has been contemplating how to make a better wheel or vehicle to transport all manner of goods.  England’s mines were the backdrop for development of the early steam locomotives by some of the best engineers in the late 18th to early 19th centuries.  Beginning in February 1804, Richard Trevithick’s locomotive invention hauled iron and passengers, followed by locomotives for racked/cogged rails (trains with a center driving wheel which engages with the racked or cogged rail for climbing steep grades) as designed by John Blenkinsop in 1812.  The next year William Hedley’s Puffing Billies came on the scene (the first smooth-wheeled locomotives), with George Stephenson’s steam locomotive of 1814 designed to work at a typical colliery (British deep-pit coal mine).  [The Great Book of Railways, pp.8-9]


On a side note, the above research regarding Hedley’s Puffing Billy trains brought to mind a favorite children’s song that perhaps others remember.  “Down by the station, Early in the morning, See the little pufferbellies, All in a row.  See the station master, Turn the little handle [we sang throttle], Chug chug, puff puff, Off they go!”  Supposedly written by Lee Ricks and Slim Gaillard in 1948, the words go back to a 1931 Recreation magazine, with a tune similar to Alouette; and first popularized by Tommy Dorsey.  (Wikipedia) 


American ingenuity took a little longer than the Brits to work itself up to full steam.  With the Delaware & Hudson Canal Company forming in 1823, the intent was to construct and operate canals between New York City and the coal mines near Carbondale in northeast Pennsylvania.  Eventually, the idea of locomotive power became their focus as a more efficient means of transporting both coal and passengers.  With that in mind, the D&H engineers took a tour of England’s renowned locomotive factories to gauge what would best meet their needs. 


This tour led the Delaware & Hudson Canal Company to order the first steam locomotives for use in the United States.  Built in England in 1828 by Foster, Rastrick & Company, the Stourbridge Lion was shipped over in pieces and reassembled at New York’s West Point Foundry.  Ready for its first official run on August 8, 1829, it was meant to carry coal from the mines near Carbondale to the canal at Honesdale, Pennsylvania.  Weighing about 7-1/2 tons, however, it was too heavy for the wooden track, a definite disappointment as the engineers had sent requirements to England for a locomotive weighing not more than 4 tons.  However, by the early 1830s, steam locomotives were being built in the United States.  


Col. John Stevens, the “father of American railroads,” set up an experimental track by 1826 on his property in Hoboken, New Jersey to prove the viability of a steam locomotive operation.  In 1830, Peter Cooper built the first American-made steam locomotive, the Tom Thumb, which ran on common track.  The public was additionally impressed when George Pullman invented the Pullman Sleeping Car in 1857, improving passengers’ over-night travel. 


With much of our early transportation dependent upon beasts of burden over roads which were not of the best quality (see Homestead article No. 5, Traveling From Here to There), or by boats on the rivers and lakes, a boon developed with the construction of numerous canals.  Following close on the heels of New York’s Erie Canal debut in 1825 (see Homestead article No. 24, Clinton’s Ditch, aka The Erie Canal) was the burgeoning development of the railroad.  With a good percentage of engineers graduating from the U. S. Military Academy at West Point, their knowledge was put to active use in surveying, planning and developing the railroads.  With their expertise, many of these West Point graduates soon became presidents and officers of the various railroad companies. 


Each state soon began granting charters to these newly-formed railroad companies.  Among the earliest to be chartered was the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad (B&O) in 1827.  Intended to run between Baltimore and the Ohio River, its first section opened May 24, 1830.  New York’s Mohawk & Hudson Railroad was incorporated in 1826, and began operating in August 1831.  Its first locomotive was the DeWitt Clinton, named for the former governor of canal fame.  The Saratoga & Schenectady Railroad followed soon after with its opening in June 1832.  Even then, ideas were being discussed regarding laying longer track from New York to Buffalo; but, it was a delicate subject as the state was heavily in debt for the Erie Canal which had just opened in 1825.  


Throughout the succeeding decades, many small railroad corporations merged to operate more efficiently.  In particular, the New York Central, headquartered in New York City, eventually became the main consolidated corporation in the northeast and Midwest as it merged with more than half a dozen other companies.


Innumerable side tracks were laid to meet the transportation needs of outlying regions as freight was shipped more efficiently than previously.  Towns vied for the opportunity to be on a rail line or spur, able to ship products out from a nearby hub rather than the expense of taking goods to a station many miles away.  Some towns were established after track was laid.  Stations built in towns on the line included water towers there and along the route to replenish the locomotive’s need to create steam and thus power.  The public found it convenient to take a passenger train for a trip to the next town or hundreds of miles away.  It sure beat the slow horse and buggy!


But, a major issue began to build as train schedules were based on differing times in towns along any given route.  To bring this under control, the railroads determined standard time was of vital importance.  At noon on November 18, 1883, standard time zones for both American and Canadian railroads began.  Prior to this date, both nations were riddled with innumerable differences in time across the countryside.  The vast differences stemmed from the use of “high noon” as each town clock was set depending upon when the sun was at its peak above their town.  Obviously, the discrepancies in time caused a nightmare for train schedules, and standardized time was the only logical answer.  Without government approval, the powerful railroad companies established four standard time zones which remain close to those still in use.  In 1918, Congress formalized the arrangement, putting the railroads under the Interstate Commerce Commission.  Prior to America’s adoption of standard time, the Great Western Railroad had established standard time in Britain beginning in 1840, with virtually all railroads adopting London time by 1847.


It should also be mentioned that tracks were also built to different size specifications.  Northern railroads typically used a standard 4 ft 8-1/2 inch or 4 ft 9 inch wide track.  This was based on English track dimensions and the fact that U.S. railroads expected to import more British-made locomotives.  This was the gauge used by George Stephenson (British inventor above) for his locomotives simply because he was familiar with this track width from a local mine near Newcastle.  As it turns out, that gauge was used for the mine track just because it was the common width of local ancient Roman roads in England.  It was next determined by measurements taken at excavations in Pompeii and elsewhere that ancient Roman roads were made for a standard chariot wheelbase of about 4 ft 9 inches or slightly less!  And that is how 4 ft 8-1/2 inch rails became the industry standard.


The early American railroads like the Baltimore & Ohio and Boston & Albany set their rails at 4 ft 8-1/2 inches, the Pennsylvania R.R. used 4 ft 9 inches, the Erie and Lackawanna both used 6 ft 0 inch tracks, Canada used a 5 ft 6 inch gauge, while Southern U.S. rails were set at 5 ft 0 inches. 


Obviously, the discrepancies prevented trains from running on certain track, necessitating standardization throughout the industry.  I found it interesting to learn that for 36 hours over two days commencing May 31, 1886, thousands upon thousands of workers pulled spikes from all west-bound tracks in the South, moved the rails in by 3 inches to 4 ft 9 inches, and immediately replaced the spikes. Thus, as of June 1886, all North American tracks were capable of running locomotives built for standard 4 ft 8-1/2 inch rails.


Impressive tunnels, bridges and viaducts were also designed and constructed to carry trains over stunning views of open water or above valley floors between steep mountain cliffs.  With the need for better materials, wrought iron rail was produced in England by 1820.  Following this, steel in America became available in the mid-1800s with the process improved in England by 1860.   


Naturally, the feasibility of a transcontinental track came under discussion and planning for several years before it became reality.  With the Pacific Railway Act of 1862 under President Lincoln, healing began for a war-torn nation as the north and south pulled together in a common goal after the Civil War.  The idea alone of a main railroad line from one ocean to the other across an entire continent was exhilarating!  Thus, the Central Pacific Railroad toiled westward over the plains and up the eastern Rockies while the Union Pacific laid its track eastward out of California, over and through the western side of the Rockies. 


Meeting at Promontory Summit in Utah on May 10, 1869, the Golden Spike was nailed into the track in an exciting celebration.  In honor of the occasion, the Union Pacific’s No. 119 and the Central Pacific’s No. 60 (Jupiter) steam locomotives met face-to-face with a single railroad tie width between them.  See painting: Celebration of the meeting of the railroad in Promontory Summit, Utah in 1869.”


This event was the conclusion of several years’ worth of investment in time spent planning, designing, and hard physical labor of laying track.  Many an immigrant, particularly the Irish and Chinese, found work in this venture.  Across the plains and through tunnels blasted out of the seemingly impassable Rocky Mountains, the rails moved inexorably toward each other with much of the original roadbed still in use today. 


The meeting of tracks thus created a transcontinental railroad connecting innumerable side tracks and spurs from all across the nation.  It was where the east met the west, no longer necessitating travel for months by wagon train from the Mississippi River to the Oregon Trail and points along the west coast.  Nor did it require a lengthy sail by ship through dangerous seas around the horn of South America to reach our nation’s western lands.  


Closer to home, Sayre, Pennsylvania housed the extensive Lehigh Valley rail yard.  Completed by 1904, it held the second largest factory of its kind in the world.  Large cranes were in place to lift a locomotive and move it anywhere.  With nearly everyone in Sayre working in one way or another for the railroad, it’s been said that the huge factories were noted for building or rebuilding one steam locomotive every day during peak production.   In fact, between 1913 and 1921, the factories at Sayre built over 40 K-class locomotives.  (The History of the Lehigh Valley Railroad, p.181.)


Along with a growing railroad industry came the need of medical services for injured railroad workers. Robert Packer Hospital, established with railroad money, was named for Robert, son of Asa Packer who was the director of Lehigh Valley Railroad.  The hospital’s adjoining Guthrie Clinic was modeled after Rochester, Minnesota’s Mayo Clinic.  Donald Guthrie, MD, a graduate of Mayo, was appointed Superintendant and Surgeon-in-Chief of Guthrie Clinic (named in his honor), taking up his position in January 1910.


Headquartered in New York City, the Lehigh Valley Railroad made an obvious impact on our region’s economy.  Begun as the Lehigh Coal and Navigation Company in the 1820s, it once held a monopoly in the mining and transporting of coal.  In order to break its monopoly, the Delaware, Lehigh, Schuylkill & Susquehanna Railroad was incorporated in 1846.  In 1853, under Asa Packer’s expert management, this mouthful of a company name became known simply as the Lehigh Valley Railroad.   One of its passenger trains, the Black Diamond Express, with an Atlantic 4-4-2 locomotive, held quite a reputation.  Known as the “Route of the Black Diamond” (named for the clean-burning anthracite coal it carried), the track ran from New York City, west through New Jersey to Easton, Pennsylvania, northwest past Wilkes-Barre and through numerous switchbacks to climb the mountains on its trip northwest to Sayre, Pennsylvania, then into New York by going north to Van Etten, northwest to Geneva, and finally west to Buffalo. 


Beginning in 1876, the Lehigh Valley Railroad “took control of the newly reorganized Geneva, Ithaca, and Sayre Railroad, started by Ezra Cornell of Ithaca.  The famous university that he founded in 1865 would fill regular and special trains with college students and their families for decades.  Special excursion trains were often set up with tiered-bleacher seating on flat cars for passengers to watch crew races on Cayuga Lake as the train kept abreast of the scullers. (History of the Lehigh Valley Railroad, p.126)  The line to Geneva provided the Lehigh Valley a means to construct their own line into Buffalo, but its grade out of Ithaca to Geneva was too steep for heavy freight trains to travel.  A diverging route was planned from Van Etten (then known as Van Ettenville) to Geneva along the east side of Seneca Lake.  In 1892, the new bypass was open and the line was also completed from Geneva to Buffalo.  The original route from Van Etten [through Spencer] to Geneva via Ithaca was now used for passenger trains and local freights.”  Lehigh Valley Railroad Historical Society.


With a new luxury train scheduled for its first run on May 18, 1896, the Lehigh Valley Railroad ran a contest to name the train.  With over 35,000 entries received, the winner was Charles Montgomery, a hotel clerk from Toledo, Ohio.  His submission, Black Diamond Express, “was considered most befitting the premier train of a railroad whose history and revenues were so closely intertwined with anthrocite.”  [The History of the Lehigh Valley Railroad, p.152]


“Running from New York City to Buffalo, the Black Diamond was promoted as a train of luxury.  The 315-foot long train was the fastest in their fleet.  The Black Diamond had chefs on board who were skilled in culinary arts.  Complete kitchens had every facility present for ‘preparing and serving substantials and delicacies in most appetizing fashion.’  Day coaches were outfitted with plush velvet chairs, a large comfortable smoking room, and lavatories for both men and women.  The last car seated 28 passengers and included a parlor and an observation platform.  It was equipped with plate glass windows at the rear and wicker chairs for passenger pleasure.  Touted by the Lehigh Valley as ‘The Handsomest Train in the World,’ the roadbed it traveled soon became known as “The Route of the Black Diamond.”  Because of its appeal to newlyweds on their way to Niagara Falls, the train was nicknamed the ‘Honeymoon Express.’”  (The Lehigh Valley Historical Society took much of its information from the book, The History of the Lehigh Valley Railroad, pp.152-153]

Of course, accidents occurred for all railroads and the Lehigh Valley was no exception.  Its second worst passenger train wreck took place on August 25, 1911.  As the No.4 train headed east out of Buffalo, it derailed on the Canandaigua Outlet Bridge because of a broken rail.  One passenger car rolled over onto its side, while two others fell into the creek 40 feet below with 29 killed and 62 injured.


Built in 1916, a 30-bay roundhouse and turntable just south of Manchester, New York was used by the Lehigh Valley Railroad on its route to and from Buffalo.  With the train yard seeing a decline in freight traffic during the post-World War II era, its doors closed forever in 1970.  Once considered the largest in the world, the Manchester Yard employed over 1000 people during its peak years.  In the mid-1960s, my dad had taken us kids on a ride to see the train yards along the Jersey shore.  Touring a round house, I can still envision the locomotive inside as it was turned onto a different track.  Fascinating stuff!

In the decades after World War II, as better and more modern means of transportation came onto the scene with trucks traveling over better paved roads and planes reaching distant destinations in only hours, the old trains and their tracks began disappearing.  Lehigh Valley passenger service also declined, ending with the Black Diamond Express making her final run with her sister train, Star, on May 11, 1959.

 The famous Black Diamond Express on the Lehigh ValleyAbove photos and article extractions obtained from Lehigh Valley Railroad Historical Society


As bigger and better locomotives were built throughout the latter 19th and early 20th centuries, record speeds were reached at or above 100 mph.  The first train ever to record a speed of 100 mph was the Empire State Express of the New York Central & Hudson River Railroad on May 9, 1893 on a run between Rochester and Buffalo, NY.  Great Britain’s famous Flying Scotsman hit 100 mph in 1934, while the British Mallard reached a record 126 mph pulling 245 tons in 1938.  Just recently, on February 25, 2016, the Flying Scotsman returned to the tracks in England, fully restored.  Retired in 1963 when diesel engines took over, she spent a number of years pulling tourist trains along the western coast in the U.S. Press release


Sandwiched in the years between two world wars, the largest steam locomotives were built in both America and Europe.  In the U.S., engines were often coupled together to provide strength for running with longer lines of loaded freight cars strung out behind, especially as they traversed the mountain passes of the western states.  Then, in the early 1940s, the American Locomotive Company (Alco) in Schenectady, New York built 25 of the largest locomotives ever.  They were dubbed “Big Boys,” intended for hauling freight over the western Rocky Mountains.  


In August 2013, Big Boy Engine No. 4014 was prepared for return to the Union Pacific’s Steam Shop in Cheyenne, Wyoming from a Pamona, California museum.  Expected to begin its journey in April 2014, it will be pulled by several modern locomotives.  Following complete restoration over the next several years to full working condition, it will be put back on the line for excursions.  [An internet search of Big Boy No. 4014 will provide photos and videos of this magnificent locomotive.  Follow the story of this steam engine online here.]


Over time, the amount of coal needed to fuel these big steam engines contributed to their demise.  In order to stay competitive with OTR (over-the-road) truck transportation and by plane, diesel and electric engines were designed and implemented.  Germany’s Rudolph Diesel designed the first successful engine in 1897 which bears his name.  By 1912, the first successful German-built diesel locomotive was also in use.  Simply put, I learned that diesel operates differently by using an oil injection as compared to a gasoline-powered engine with spark plugs. 


Freight cars in America have often been pulled by several locomotives coupled together, providing greater strength than a single engine.  Modern locomotives are designed with diesel engines and electric generators which help them reach top speed much quicker than a simple diesel engine alone.  Thus, the “world’s first streamlined diesel-electric [locomotive was] a Denver-Chicago express” which began running in 1934.  (The Great Book of Railways)


With the invention of electricity, it wasn’t long before the great inventors put it to use in operating trains.  Electric trains are connected to an overhead electric wire/cable which provides power.  The first electric tram, designed by another German, Werner von Siemens, was on working display at the Berlin Trades Exhibition on May 31, 1879.  His brother, Sir William Siemens, settled in England and designed the first electric railroad which began running in 1883 in Northern Ireland.  It was not until 1890, however, that London’s first electric railway began operating in underground tunnels.  London’s Metropolitan Railway soon became the world’s first subway in 1863 by using underground steam trains.  Following these world firsts, America’s first electric railway was put to use in 1895 by the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad with electric locomotives pulling steam trains through tunnels under Baltimore, Maryland.  (The Great Book of Railways)


And, of course, we also have subways and elevated rails which provide convenient transportation beneath and above city streets.  In the latter 20th century, travel by traditional passenger train declined.  There are, however, some passenger lines still in operation, including scenic excursions, just as there are freight lines providing an important transportation option.  Locally, we can watch a freight train pass through Van Etten and Spencer.  I do enjoy the days when I can clearly hear its whistle and the sound of the heavy engines and cars clicking and creaking over the rails as it passes through our community, reminding us of the halcyon days of long ago.


At the end of every freight train was the red caboose.  These cars were used until safety laws were relaxed in 1980 at which time improved safety monitoring devices were implemented.  Cabooses provided shelter and cooking facilities for the crew who were needed to switch or shunt a train or individual cars onto another track.  This was dangerous work as men could become injured or run over when coupling or uncoupling the cars.  The crew also kept an eye out for any shifting of loads in the cars, or damage to equipment and freight, or axles that might be overheating.  The cupola on top helped them keep an eye out for problems on the track or with the cars. 


I love to watch a train, hear the whistle, count the cars, and pace my car with the train if the track is parallel to the road just to see what its traveling speed is.  I remember our fascination as kids as we watched trains and waved to the engineer or brakeman.  The son of our friends, Scott, is an engineer for CXS in the Midwest, gave a few wise words of warning in an interview several years ago:  “Please wait at railroad crossings.  If your route takes you across a busy set of railroad tracks, leave earlier for your destination.  Something that weighs 3 million pounds, moving at 50 miles per hour, does not stop fast.  It can take a mile or more for something like that to stop.” 


Linda Roorda


Originally published as front-page article in the local Broader View Weekly newspaper, March 21, 2013.


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“It’s all up to Mother Nature,” said Al Smith.  When the days begin to get longer and stay above freezing, and nights are below freezing, the sap begins to flow.  It’s then we start to see those long lines of plastic tubing snaking between maple trees in the woods as we drive by.  Did you know it takes about 30 to 50 gallons of sap to make just one gallon of delicious pure maple syrup?


While a number of maple syrup producers locally have been in the business for decades, for brothers Allan and Albert Smith, Jr. (formerly Smith Brothers Maple Syrup, now Smith Family Maple Products), the sugaring fever hit in their teens.  And they come by it naturally.  Their grandfather, Dayton Smith, his brother Ben, and Dayton’s son Albert Sr. (the twins’ father), operated a small evaporator in the early 1970s.  Ben’s father-in-law, Aubrey Westervelt, had been sugaring for decades.  So, it was only natural the Smiths used his sugar bush, tapping about 250 trees annually with spile and bucket, trees still used by the younger generation.  Dayton, Ben and Albert’s initial evaporator was set up in a garage for a couple years.  Then, Dayton bought a commercial 2x6 evaporator and set it up at Ben’s farm on Sabin Road.  After operating for a few more years, selling by word of mouth, they ended the labor-intensive syrup production and sold their equipment.


A favorite family story is told of a time Dayton, Ben, and Albert, Sr. went to a meeting at Cornell University’s Research Center.  They brought along a bottle of their maple syrup to show what they’d been up to in the little farming town of Spencer.  On showing their light golden syrup to the Cornell gentlemen, one of the Smiths wryly asked, “Do you know how much brown sugar we need to add to make the color darker?” I’m sure a hearty laugh was shared by all!


Having grown up with sugaring in the family, Allan Smith decided to build a small homemade evaporator in 1992 for his B.O.C.E.S shop class.  With twin brother Albert’s help, they set it up in an old woodshed to see if they could actually make syrup.  One day, grandfather Dayton happened to visit and discovered the boys’ secret.  Seeing their homemade evaporator, he got excited and motivated them to continue their endeavors.  The following season, Dayton purchased a 2x6 commercial evaporator for them.  They boiled sap the old way, using about a wheelbarrow load of well-seasoned firewood every 15-20 minutes.  It took roughly an hour to make about one gallon of syrup.  As Smith Brothers Maple Syrup, the brothers tapped annually, selling by word of mouth just as the older generation had done.


In 2010, Allan and Albert, Jr. sold their old equipment and purchased a 2-1/2 x 10 natural gas fired evaporator, capable of producing about 8-9 gallons of syrup per hour.  With this expansion in the family business, they changed their name to Smith Family Maple Products.  In 2011, they remodeled an old machine shed on their parents’ property into a modern sap house.  They love what they’re doing from the mundane aspects to operating the high-tech equipment.  And their excitement is contagious!  I thoroughly enjoyed every minute of the two evenings I spent learning from the Smiths.


Starting in 1992 with about 30-40 maple trees using spiles and buckets, they now have about 10 acres of sugarbush (maple trees), tapping about 500 trees, hoping to add another 500 next year.  Initially, they used a hand-turned brace with a 7/16ths drill bit, pounded the spile into the tree, and hung a covered bucket.  Later, they tried a chainsaw with an attachment to do the drilling.  It worked well, but the saw was a bit heavy to lug around all day.  Now, they use a lightweight cordless drill with a smaller 5/16ths bit that is much easier to handle.  The smaller hole also causes less damage to the tree.  


In 1999, they bought a filter press which does a better job than the prior hand filter to strain the processed syrup of undesirables.  Their new sap house, with running water, and hot water at that, is a major change from the original old woodshed.  They now have a kitchen area with a work table, sinks, counters and kitchen stove to process their syrup into candy and other sweet confections.  Stainless steel containers store the maple syrup before it’s packaged into bottles and made into other products.  They’ve added machines to make maple sugar candy, maple snow cones, maple cream (equipment built by their dad), maple cotton candy, and granulated maple sugar.  The Smith family is constantly upgrading, hoping in the next few years to add a bottling facility for a bigger and better kitchen processing area. 


In 2012, they added a vacuum pump to the sapline which pulls sap off the trees for increased production. With plastic tubing strung between the trees, the pump draws the flowing sap downhill to the large stainless-steel bulk tank.  From there, it is siphoned into a large plastic tank on a trailer and hauled to their sap house.  Sure beats the days of handling all those buckets!  From this large tank, the sap is run up into an insulated stainless-steel storage tank that stands about 15 feet above ground next to the sap house. 


From the elevated storage tank, sap is fed downline into the Piggy Back Unit in the sap house which sits above a 1 million BTU natural gas boiler pan.  The steam created from the lower pan heats the cold sap in the upper pan.  As the sap heats, water is boiled off the sap, condensing it down to the beginning stage of syrup.  Hot air is forced through the sap in the Piggy Back Unit with a high-pressure blower, helping bring the sap to boil.  Sap usually boils at 212 degrees like water, but that changes with atmospheric pressure.  At the time of my first visit, Sunday, March 10th, based on the barometric pressure in the sap house, the sap boiled at 210.8 degrees.  As the sap continues to boil and water evaporates, the sap thickens.  Reaching about 7 degrees higher than standard boiling temperature, or about 219, the sap reaches syrup stage.  Thermometers in the pans are constantly monitored as they measure the temperatures.  It’s a very delicate process.


As the boiled sap loses water content, it flows from the Piggy Back rearward pan into the front syrup pan directly over the fire.  Floats regulate the sap levels as sap is divided into channels to cook evenly.  If it were to cook too hot or too long at this stage, it would blacken and harden like concrete.  As it continues to cook, syrup is pulled from the front pan and drips down into a stainless-steel container.  The syrup in this container is then poured into the finishing pan over a smaller fire where it is slowly boiled and refined to become the sweet taste we know as pure maple syrup. 


All this while steam from the boiling process emanates from the venting cupola above the building, permeating the outside air with the delicious aroma of sweet maple syrup.


A daily log book is kept annually to record temps, weather (sunny, cloudy, windy, rainy, snowy), amount of sap collected and syrup made, the sugar content of the sap, barometric pressure, etc.  I asked about the average amount of sap collected daily, and Allan simply looked it up in his log.  Roughly 400-800 gallons are collected daily with a total last year (2012) of 4516 gallons of sap equaling about 70-80 gallons of syrup.  The high boiling temperatures kill any bacteria that might come along with the sap.  They also clean the equipment before each season starts, during the season on slow days with no sap to boil, and again at the end of the season.  It is still a labor-intensive venture.


The weather patterns make a difference as to the amount of sap and its quality.  A good sap run begins after a cold winter with sufficient precipitation throughout the year.  With the dry summer of 2011, followed by a warmer-than-usual winter and no deep cold spell in January 2012, the production of sap was down, though “still pretty good,” and the Smiths were pleased.  Allan told me, “Every year’s production is different, and every night’s boiling is different.”  They have definitely seen seasonal ups and downs, as does every farmer, but cannot say they have seen an overall “global warming” pattern. 


Usually they tap around Valentine’s Day, occasionally not until late February.  This year they tapped February 8th and had their first sap run on February 16th.   Sap collected in the raw state is about 2-3% sugar; the maple syrup stage is 66% sugar.  The lighter grades of syrup are made earlier in the season, with grades darkening as the season goes on.  The grades include Grade A light amber, most sweet; Grade A medium; Grade A dark with the most maple flavor; and Grade B dark, a cooking syrup.


I asked about disasters, and they’ve had a few.  When boiling, the sap can quickly burn if the temperature goes up too high too fast.  What you’re left with is a pan of black goo that sets up like concrete, permanently ruining the evaporator pan.  I can sympathize as I once accidentally overcooked some sugar water for my hummingbirds.  Turning my back on the boiling sugar water for a few minutes longer than expected, I returned to find it had become a thin layer of solid black concrete in a good pot.  I used a screwdriver to scrape hard and long, but got it all off.


The Smith brothers faithfully attend the New York State Maple Producers’ Association every January, the largest convention in the U.S.  The two-day event, held at the Vernon/Verona/Sherril High School, brings in speakers and specialists from Vermont, Cornell University, and Canada, etc.  Highly educational, it is for anyone who taps from one tree to 10,000 trees.  The Smith brothers have been learning as much as they can about the business, including the latest technology available, constantly seeking to improve and grow their business.  They also learn about industry standards in order to meet government regulations so they can market their products commercially.


Smith Family Maple Products are sold by word of mouth and at Family Farm Mercantile on Townline Road between Spencer and Van Etten.  A few years ago, a woman visiting from Ohio happened to see the Smith’s maple leaf sign on Sabin Road and stopped.  Now she faithfully orders maple syrup every year from her home in Ohio!  Eventually, they hope to build up a large enough volume to sell online.


If folks want to try making syrup just for home consumption, there are no regulations.  Basically, Allen and Albert told me, “You need to boil the sap to 219 degrees, keep everything clean, without contamination, and enjoy!  Maple syrup is good on anything!”  There are many websites which can provide information, along with Cornell’s Cooperative Extension offices.    


Being rather technologically challenged, I was very impressed with the Smith Family Maple Products’ operation.  From simple and humble beginnings, it has grown to encompass today’s modern technology in order to produce more syrup, more efficiently.


Sharing about the old ways of collecting sap and making syrup brought to mind stories my mother has shared over the years.  The Tillapaugh family of 12 children in Carlisle, New York has made and sold maple syrup for several generations, and my cousins continue the annual tradition today.  My mother, Reba Visscher of Waverly, and her youngest sister, Lois Beach of Newfield, readily recall the childhood fun, albeit hard work, of helping their dad and older siblings during the 1930s and 1940s.  Lois shared with me, “As the youngest I did look forward to maple syrup time.  A lot of hard work, but worth it, with memories forever.” 


Their dad and older brothers used a hand-turned brace to drill holes in about 300-plus trees.  They’d pound in the spiles from which buckets were hung, with lids placed by the younger girls.  When the sap ran, besides regular dairy farm chores, they had daily sap gathering.  This involved dumping each bucket’s worth into a holding tank on a large bobsled pulled by a team of black Shires (Dick and Daisy) or Belgians (Bunny, Nell, and Tub) on a trail through the woods.  My mother said that if rain got into the buckets it turned the sap brown, and they threw that out.  And, they often trekked the woods to gather sap with two or more feet of snow on the ground.


Carlisle’s woods are not like those in our south-central fingerlakes region.  Carlisle has rolling hills with limestone boulder outcroppings, and many crevices and mini-caves.  With Howe’s Cavern near Cobleskill, the town of Carlisle and Tillapaugh farm also have small caves with nooks and crannies throughout the woods.  There was a defined trail for the horses through the woods, but everyone had to walk carefully among the trees.  I remember as a child seeing a good-sized cave opening in the ground next to one of the farm pastures, so I can attest to it being an interesting trek to collect sap.


With a love for horses since my childhood when my father farmed with Belgians (and Clydesdales before marrying my mom), I can visualize harnessing the black Shires with flowing white “feathers” on their lower legs, listening to them clop along, stepping high in unison.  I can imagine the creaking harness and traces, maybe bells tinkling, the big sled’s runners scraping along a gravel road or gliding atop snow. 


At this point, my mother chuckled to recall a day she rode out on the sled carrying the sap tank with her brother, Maynard.  When he jumped off as they went up a hill, the sap tank tilted and she fell off, the sled nearly running over her but the horses were stopped just in time.  Another time, she got a tiny piece of metal in her eye from a bucket lid.  The doctor brought a large magnet to draw the speck out, but she refused to let him, petrified it would pull her eye out!  She has no idea how the metal ever did get out of her eye, but there was no damage.


When the holding tank was full, it was taken to the sap hut, and sap drained into one of two 4x8-10 foot evaporator pans over a wood fire.  I questioned her about the size of those pans, but she was adamant about the very large size.  Considering her memory has not failed her for other details, I saw online there were, indeed, evaporator pans this large.  The oldest brothers stayed at the sap hut boiling all night, often around the clock, watching the temperatures carefully with thermometers.  Lois also recalls their mother made lunches which the girls took out to their brothers.  


My mother agreed with my aunt who said that “when the partially cooked syrup was ready, it was brought to the house in milk cans.  Mom would finish boiling it to the correct temperature over a kerosene stove in the summer kitchen, and strain it through felt into gallon glass jugs, mostly for home use, some to sell.”  My mom added, “Some syrup was boiled further to make maple candy, or poured over the snow for a sweet chewy treat.”


Maple syrup helped their family deal with sugar shortages and rationing during the Great Depression and World War II.  At the end of the season came the hard work of cleaning all the equipment, repeated when the season started.


After the youngest Tillapaugh brothers, Winfred and Floyd, retired and sold the family dairy herd in 1974, they built a modern and efficient sap hut closer to home.  Using both pails and plastic tubing, Floyd’s son, Duane, recalls other cousins helping them tap a few hundred trees in a venture which eventually grew to around 1000.  “Back then, we put a pill in the drilled hole [to kill] bacteria.  I believe that’s illegal now.  We burned wood, but Dad rigged up a thing that would blow old motor oil in when it was close to syrup [stage] to make the fire hotter to push it to syrup.”  They sold syrup from home in pint, quart, half-gallon and gallon containers, also making maple cream and candy.  Their peak years produced about 200-250 gallons of syrup annually.


I researched online articles about the use of paraformaldehyde pills/tablets in the tap hole years ago.  Controversy has surrounded its benefits of cutting bacteria and helping the tapped tree heal versus the pills leading to fungi setting in with increased decay versus the fact that formaldehyde was making its way into food for human consumption.  Therefore, its use became illegal in the 1980s.


Knowing that Native Americans made maple syrup centuries ago, I delved into their sugaring process.  They would make a slash in a maple tree, collecting the sap as it dripped out.  Hollowed out logs were filled with fresh sap, and white-hot field stones were added to bring the sap to boil.  The Indians repeated this process until syrup stage was reached, or until they had crystallized sugar.  When the first Europeans arrived, the Indians traded maple sugar for other products, and taught their sugaring secrets to the new settlers.  


Referred by my cousin, Bruce Tillapaugh, a retired Cooperative Extension agent, I contacted Stephen Childs, the New York Maple Specialist at Cornell University.  Childs said, “Cornell has a number of resources for backyarders and beginning maple producers.  Much of the information is available at .  We have a Beginner DVD and Cornell Maple Videos.  We hold many Beginner Workshops in the fall and winter.  A maple camp is held in June that is three full days of instruction for new commercial producers or small producers planning to expand.  There are recorded webinar programs online that interested persons can watch.”


I also found a brochure online for the beginner by a local resident:  “Maple Syrup Production for the Beginner” by Anni L. Davenport, School of Forest Resources, The Pennsylvania State University; Lewis Staats, Dept. of Natural Resources, Cornell University, Cornell Cooperative Extension, 1998.


With a little more research, I learned pure maple syrup not only tastes good, but it’s good for you.  It is a natural source of manganese and zinc, important for our immune defense systems.  Zinc is an antioxidant which protects our heart by decreasing atherosclerosis and helping prevent damage to the inner lining of blood vessels.  It is also known that a zinc deficiency can lead to a higher risk of prostate cancer.  Zinc supplementation is used by healthcare practitioners to help reduce prostate enlargement.  Studies have also found that adults with a deficiency in manganese have decreased levels of HDL, the good cholesterol.  Manganese helps lessen inflammation, key to healing.  Just one ounce of maple syrup holds 22% of the daily requirement of this key trace mineral. 


Syrup also contains iron, calcium and potassium which help repair damaged muscle and cells.  It can settle digestive problems.  It can help keep bones strong and blood sugar levels normal, help keep white blood cell counts up to protect against colds and viruses, and maple syrup is not a common allergen.


With all the good it has going for it, 100% pure maple syrup is truly worth all that hard work!  Enjoy!


Linda Roorda

I think Christmas is everyone’s favorite time of year, especially a white Christmas!  Right?!  Even shopping has begun in earnest, just the day after Thanksgiving.  But, many of our current holiday traditions either changed dramatically or began only in the 19th century.  Writing in the “Broader View Weekly” local newspaper in December 2012, I explored the origins of many of our American Christmas traditions, and how others celebrated around the world. 


December 6th is a day my/our Dutch ancestors would have celebrated Saint Nicholas Day, part of traditional European Christmas celebrations for centuries.  The Dutch word “Sinterklaas” for Saint Nicholas is considered the origin of our American “Santa Claus” with Washington Irving and Clement C. Moore helping to make him who he is today.  The earliest writing in America of a figure resembling our modern Santa can be found in Washington Irving’s satire of Dutch culture.  In “History of New York” published in 1809, Irving writes in chapter IX:  "At this early period…hanging up a stocking in the chimney on St. Nicholas eve…is always found in the morning miraculously filled; for the good St. Nicholas has ever been a great giver of gifts, particularly to children." 


Clement C. Moore immortalized St. Nicholas in “’Twas The Night Before Christmas.”  In this ode to St. Nick, he appears on December 24th, Christmas Eve in America, not the original St. Nicholas Eve of December 5th in Europe.  Moore’s poem, published anonymously in a Troy, New York newspaper on December 23, 1823, promotes a new appearance to the original lean St. Nicholas:  “He had a broad face and a little round belly…He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf…[with a] "sleigh full of Toys" [and] "eight tiny reindeer…[as] Down the chimney St. Nicholas came with a bound."  The two original reindeer names of Donder and Blixem were later changed to Donner and Blitzen.  Once again, the Dutch influence in the former New Netherlands was involved as “donder” means thunder and “bliksem” means lightning. 


While Irving and Moore both present the jolly gift giver as Saint Nicholas, political cartoonist Thomas Nast is considered the first to refer to “Santa Claus” in his illustration for the January 3, 1863 edition of “Harpers Weekly.”  President Lincoln had requested that Nast depict St. Nicholas visiting the Union troops.  Nast’s illustration shows Santa Claus sitting on his sleigh at a U.S. Army camp, handing out gifts in front of a “Welcome Santa Claus” sign.


Another treasured tradition of our modern Christmas is Charles Dickens’ short story, “A Christmas Carol,” written as a commentary on the greed of Victorian England.  Available in book stores the week before Christmas 1843, it sold very well, never being out of print since.  Scrooge has the distinction of being one of the most well-known literary characters.  But, what do we care… Bah, humbug!


Our decorated Christmas tree comes from German traditions with Queen Victoria’s husband Prince Albert putting up the first decorated tree at Windsor Castle in 1841.  Based on illustrations of this event published in America in 1849, Christmas trees then became fashionable on this side of the “pond.”  Small candles were used to light the tree, with popcorn and cranberry strings typically used for decoration.


From the religious aspect, Christmas celebrations differed in many ways based on national origin   I found it interesting to learn that Christmas celebrations were outlawed in Boston by the Puritans in the mid to late 17th century with fines for violations, while the Johnstown, Virginia settlers enjoyed their merry celebrations under Capt. John Smith.  After the American Revolution, Americans looked down on English traditions, including Christmas.  Apparently, Congress was even in session on December 25, 1789!  In fact, Christmas did not become a federal holiday until Congress declared it such on June 26, 1870. 


By the late 19th century, celebrating Christmas was made popular through children’s books and women’s magazines.  Church Sunday School classes began encouraging celebrations, and families were decorating Christmas trees with everyone “knowing” Santa Claus delivered gifts on Christmas Eve, traditions which have been carried on into the 21st century.


Other popular traditions we all look forward to include decorating our homes and trees, baking scrumptious special treats, singing carols, and either making or shopping for just the right gift for each special person on our list.  But, alas, the years have also taken a simple celebration in honor of Jesus’ birth and made it into a highly marketed holiday, one often filled with ostentatious materialism.  Personally, I prefer to step back to the simpler traditions of my Dutch ancestry and childhood home, one without “all the trappings” and media frenzy.


With my dad being a first generation Dutch-American, we veered from Dutch tradition in some ways.  We maintained Christmas Day with a morning church service and a big family dinner; but, our gift-giving was held the Saturday before Christmas, not the Dutch traditional day of December 5.  My first and last adoration of Santa Claus came the Christmas I was 5 years old when Santa visited my grandparents in Clifton, New Jersey.  We three little granddaughters shyly sat on his lap to share our wants.  Afterwards, my grandmother took us to an upstairs window to watch Santa and his reindeer leave.  All I saw was a car with red tail lights driving away between the snowbanks.  At that moment, I was crushed and disillusioned, and just knew there was absolutely no Santa Claus because, despite dressing the part, he did not have a sleigh and reindeer!


After all, everyone’s favorite reindeer is Rudolph with his nose so bright!  Supposedly written by Robert L. May for his daughter when her mother was dying of cancer, “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” was actually written in 1939 for his employer, Montgomery Ward, as a Christmas book given out free to customers.  Though May’s wife did die around the time he wrote the story, he read it to his 4-year-old daughter as he worked on it simply to ensure it held a child’s interest.  With memories of his own childhood, May decided on a tale with roots in “The Ugly Duckling” and the taunts he had suffered as a child.  Poor Rudolph was ostracized by other reindeer for being different, having an obvious physical abnormality… a glowing red nose.  No one else had one!  Regardless of his defect, Rudolph thrived under his parents’ love, overcame his disability and the taunts to became a responsible young deer!  And then one foggy night, Santa noticed how Rudolph’s nose shone through the dark, and asked him to lead the team of reindeer pulling his sleigh on Christmas Eve!  How excited and honored Rudolph must have felt!  http://www.snopes.com/holidays/christmas/rudolph.asp


We’ve all been blessed with special Christmas memories over the years.  While visiting my mom at Elderwood, she shared that her mother had always put up and decorated a large Christmas tree in their front parlor.  It was a big change for her to learn that her new husband was not so inclined to such ostentatious displays due to his more austere Dutch upbringing.  With limited decorations and no trees until my mid teens when my dad finally gave in to the pleading of his six kids, I have found it difficult to step out of that mold.  Yet, I have enjoyed putting up a tree with lights and decorations when our three children were young.  And now, since my mother-in-law gave me her ceramic tree the Christmas before she passed away, I am honored to share her generosity in this smaller and simpler display.


My favorite Christmas memory was when my husband, Ed, farmed with his dad.  With finances tight, I usually sewed clothes for all of us.  But, one year I also made doll beds for each of our children by taking free soda boxes from the local grocery store, gluing the bottoms together, and covering them with wood-grain contact paper.  My step-mother gave our three children a Cabbage-Patch type girl or boy doll she had made, while my grandmother sewed clothes and blankets for each doll.  And our kids could not have been happier! 


Our local churches do not have a Christmas morning service like Ed and I grew up with, though we have enjoyed the local Christmas Eve candlelight services and singing of favorite carols.  We also began a tradition of reading the Christmas story with our children before they opened gifts on Christmas morning. 


And another favorite of our family has been the TV special, “A Charlie Brown Christmas” by Charles M. Schulz.  With the busy holiday shopping extravaganza and commercialization, I think we sometimes lose a little of the wonder of that very first Christmas.


“Narrator:  It was finally Christmastime, the best time of the year.  The houses were strung with tiny colored lights, their windows shining with a warm yellow glow only Christmas could bring.  The scents of pine needles and hot cocoa mingled together, wafting through the air, and the sweet sounds of Christmas carols could be heard in the distance.  Fluffy white snowflakes tumbled from the sky onto a group of joyful children as they sang and laughed, skating on the frozen pond in town.  Everyone was happy and full of holiday cheer.  That is, everyone except for Charlie Brown…”


“Charlie (to Linus):  ‘I think there must be something wrong with me.  I just don’t understand Christmas, I guess.  I might be getting presents and sending Christmas cards and decorating trees and all that, but I’m still not happy.  I don’t feel the way I’m supposed to feel…’”


“Later, after a day of frustrations, Charlie says:  ‘I guess you were right Linus; I shouldn’t have picked this little tree.  Everything I do turns into a disaster.  I guess I don’t really know what Christmas is about.  Isn’t there anyone who understands what Christmas is all about?’”


“Linus:  ‘Sure, I can tell you what Christmas is all about.’  [Walking to the center of the stage, Linus speaks:]  ‘And there were in the same country Shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.  And lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone ‘round about them, and they were sore afraid.  And the angel said unto them, ‘Fear not!  For behold, I bring you tidings of great joy which will be to all people.  For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.  And this shall be a sign unto you.  You shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes lying in the manger.’  And suddenly, there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on Earth peace, good will toward men.’”  [Luke 2:8-14]


And, for me and my family, that’s what Christmas is all about…  Merry Christmas to all!


Linda Roorda

The Battle of Newtown on August 29, 1779, 240 years ago, near present-day Elmira in Chemung County, New York was significant to the Revolutionary War.  It played a crucial, though seldom discussed, key role.  It was not a bloody battle, but it was instrumental in breaking up the power of the Six Nation Iroquois Federation, thus allowing westward frontier expansion for colonials.


For centuries the Iroquois Nation included the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga and Seneca tribes.  In the early 18th century, the Tuscarora joined their ranks by heading north from what is now North Carolina.  As the Revolutionary War commenced, the Iroquois Federation tried to stay neutral.  In time, however, most of the Iroquois gave their loyalty to Great Britain while the Oneida and Tuscarora tribes chose to align themselves with the colonists who were seeking independence from the British Crown. 


Under Thayendanegea (commonly known as Joseph Brant), the Native Americans (referred to by the Colonists as Indians) joined forces with Loyalists and attacked western frontier settlements just as they did those further east in the Mohawk and Schoharie Valleys.  They carried away prisoners, ruthlessly murdered and scalped adults as well as children, and burned and destroyed the crops and homes of Patriots in both outlying and established settlements.  And a cycle of retaliation ensued.


I am not here to open a discussion or pass judgment on the negatives and positives of the why, wherefore, and how regarding what was or was not done 200 to 400 years ago in our nation’s history by either the Native Americans or the white European settlers.  May I say, however, that conflict and conquering of other lands and peoples has been taking place since world history began.  Their times are not ours.  


The Chemung River valley basin and its surrounding hills near present-day Elmira were home to Indians for centuries, but by the 18th century the Iroquois were in consistent residence.  Here they had ample room to grow crops along the fertile river bottoms.  Easy access to virgin forests filled with wildlife supplied them with meat and valuable pelts as they hunted and trapped.  The rivers and streams provided them not only with an ideal means of transportation, but an abundance of fish.  A healthy way of life for sure!


Atop a steep hill which overlooks the Chemung River and the Southern Tier Expressway (formerly State Route 17, now Interstate 86) is the Newtown Battlefield Reservation State Park, once part of the Iroquois’ territory.  The 100th anniversary of the Battle of Newtown was celebrated August 29, 1879 with the dedication of a monument on top of Sullivan Hill.  The area was designated a national historic landmark in 1965, with battle re-enactments held annually in the park.  I’ve wanted to observe the re-enactments to learn more about the battle, but have never managed to make my way there.  So, come along with me and we’ll learn together what happened all those years ago.


To understand what took place, though, is to know the precipitating chain of events which led to the small but important battle at Newtown.  In the early days of the Revolutionary War, both the British and the Colonists attempted to gain the loyalty of the Native Americans as noted above.  The ultimate decisions caused division among the great Iroquois Federation when the tribes split their loyalties.  The famed Iroquois’ leader, Joseph Brant, worked closely with the British stationed at Fort Niagara.  He frequently took to the warpath against the white settlers on the western frontier, as well as back east in the Mohawk and Schoharie Valleys.  But the question begs to be asked, why?


Along with the vital convergence of the Hudson and Mohawk rivers, the greater Albany region was of key importance in the Revolutionary War to both sides.  Schoharie County, part of western Albany County prior to 1795, has historically been considered “The Breadbasket of the Revolution.”  With its fertile lands, the area produced an abundance of crops which kept Washington’s armies fed.  Thus, the area’s assets, the rivers for transportation and the productive land, became a root of contention among the Loyalists and Tories, or supporters of the Crown.  Their loyalties festered and erupted into violence and destruction against their neighbors and kin, the supporters of independence. 


In the early stages of war, the Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army, General George Washington, preferred that these vulnerable settlements use their own local militia to guard and protect against attack.  And repeated attacking was the game plan of marauding bands of Indian-Loyalist troops.  Often, “forts” of refuge for Patriots were established to escape these bands of Indians and Tories.  Among such forts is the old Dutch Reformed Church, now called the Old Stone Fort, home to the Schoharie County Historical Society in the town of Schoharie, New York which I have visited several times to research my maternal family.  Its stone walls still exhibit a hole from the direct hit of a cannonball. 


In May 1778, Joseph Brant set out on raids in Cobleskill (near my mother’s home town of Carlisle) and the neighboring frontier settlements.  Soon after, on July 3, 1778, Col. John Butler and his Loyalist Rangers joined Chief Sayenqueraghta’s Seneca and Cayuga Indians in an attack of Pennsylvania’s Wyoming Valley.  Settlers from Connecticut had established homes and farms along the Susquehanna River in this fertile valley, an area which also produced an abundance of grain for the Continental armies.  Here, at Forty Fort (a few miles north of the fort at Wilkes-Barre, but on the opposite side of the Susquehanna River), about 360 local Patriot militiamen were killed with over 200 scalped in the Wyoming Massacre.


That September, Patriot soldiers under Col. Thomas Hartley took their wrath out on the Seneca, Delaware and Mingo Indians by burning and destroying nearly a dozen towns on the Susquehanna, including Tioga (now Athens, PA) and Chemung (NY).  At the same time, Butler’s Rangers destroyed Patriot houses and crops on the German Flats up north in the Mohawk Valley.  This brought the Patriot militia back out to attack and destroy the Indian settlements at Unadilla and Onaquaga (now Windsor) along the Susquehanna River in New York.


To read William E. Roscoe’s “History of Schoharie County, New York” and other related books about the killing and destruction throughout the region is to gain a better understanding of the larger picture.  Indians were known among settlers, including my ancestors; some were liked, others were feared.  The war cast a pall of deadly fear among residents of the Mohawk and Schoharie Valleys - one’s loyalties were usually known, whether for the Crown or Independence, and often one’s life depended upon that knowledge.  Neighbor was pitted against neighbor, even against one’s own blood relatives.  My various direct ancestral families were Patriots with one Loyalist, while some extended relatives were killed or taken captive by the Indian-Loyalist bands.   I have also dined with friends (Cheryl being a distant maternal cousin) at the George Mann Tory Tavern north of the town of Schoharie, beautifully restored to its colonial elegance, Mann having been a well-known supporter of the Crown during the War.


In November 1778, Butler’s Rangers, 320 Iroquois under Chief Cornplanter, and 30 Indians under Joseph Brant attacked Cherry Valley, northeast of Oneonta in Otsego County and northwest of Cobleskill in Schoharie County.  Encompassing the fort to ensure soldiers could not escape, the Indians began their massacre.  They killed and scalped 30 or 32 residents (numbers vary in reports, mostly women and children) and 16 soldiers.  An additional 70 to 80 adults and children (again, numbers vary in reports) were taken captive into Indian territory after the homes and crops had been completely destroyed.  More retributions followed from both sides with further loss of life, but the Cherry Valley Massacre was a devastating blow.  Something had to be done to stop this slaughter of innocents. 


Gen. Washington was now convinced of the need for an offensive campaign against the British, Loyalists and Indians who held Forts Niagara and Oswego.  Settling on Maj. Gen. John Sullivan as commanding officer, Washington wrote Sullivan on May 31, 1779:  “The Expedition you are appointed to command is to be directed against the hostile tribes of the Six Nations of the Indians, with their associates and adherents.  The immediate objects are the total destruction and devastation of their settlements, and the capture of as many prisoners…as possible.  It will be essential to ruin their crops now in the ground and prevent their planting more…  You will not by any means listen to any overture of peace before the total ruinment of their settlements is effected.  Our future security will be in their inability to injure us…”  Essentially, a “scorched earth” policy was to be executed.


Thus, in August 1779, Washington sent Major General John Sullivan and his troops up the Susquehanna River from Easton, PA while Brigadier General James Clinton and his army traveled southwest from Canajoharie in New York’s Mohawk Valley down to Otsego Lake and to the Susquehanna River flowing west.  Known as the Sullivan-Clinton Campaign (or, Expedition), Washington’s goal was to destroy Indian ties to the British by decimating the Indian towns and supplies of corn, vegetables and fruit at their source.  It was this produce which not only kept the Indians well fed, but also the British army.  Sullivan and Clinton were ordered to then continue northward with their armies to capture the British forts at Oswego and Niagara in order to disrupt their military hold on the region.


On August 22, 1779, Sullivan and Clinton met at Tioga Point along the Susquehanna River (present-day Athens, PA).  With combined troops numbering at least 2300 to under 4000 (accounts I’ve read vary as to numbers), they traveled northwest along the Chemung River.  On Sunday, August 29, advance scouts found hidden horseshoe-shaped breastworks/earthworks about half a mile long.  Roughly 150 feet up the southeast slope of a mile-long hill (now called Sullivan Hill), these earthworks were within shooting range of the road and near the Iroquois village of New Town.  From this vantage point, those approaching the hill could be observed or ambushed before reaching the Cayuga Indian towns of Nanticoke and Kanawaholla where Elmira was later established.  See Newtown Battlefield military placements.


 At that time, the slope was densely covered in virgin forest.  At its base and to the east was a marsh, Hoffman Hollow, thickly covered with grass and trees.  Baldwin Creek ran through this marsh and emptied into the Chemung River (called the Cayuga Branch by Sullivan in his reports).  My online search of Google maps shows what is likely Baldwin Creek to be, surprisingly and confusingly, labeled the Chemung River as it flows under I-86 and empties into the main Chemung River.  What was then called Baldwin Creek runs near to and west of Lowman Road within the area still labeled Hoffman Hollow.


Manning the breastworks were 15 British troops, 250 Loyalist Rangers, and about 1000 Indian warriors.  The initial intent of Loyalist Major John Butler and the Iroquois chief, Joseph Brant, was to harass the Continental troops.  Sayenqueraghta and other Indian chiefs rejected that proposal, favoring instead attempts at luring the Continentals into a full ambush. 


One of the forward scouts for the Sullivan-Clinton Campaign, Lt. Col. Adam Hubley, recorded the discovery of these breastworks that morning.  “On our arrival near the ridge on which the action of the 13th commenced with light corps, our van discovered several Indians in front, one of whom gave them fire, and then fled.  We continued…[and] the rifle corps entered a low marshy ground which seemed well calculated for forming ambuscades; they advanced with great precaution, when several more Indians were discovered who fired and retreated.  Major Parr… judged it rather dangerous to proceed any further without taking every caution to reconnoiter almost every foot of ground, and ordered one of his men to mount a tree and see if he could make any discoveries; … [and] he discovered the movements of several Indians… as they were laying behind an extensive breastwork. “  (online source available upon request)


Learning of the breastworks’ locations through Lt. Col. Hubley’s findings , the Continental commanders knew there was an attempt in the offing to lure them into an ambush.  Moving cautiously forward into position, an initial attack on the breastworks came late that morning when Brig. Gen. Edward Hand put his infantry on the far side of Baldwin Creek.  From that position, they could easily fire into the enemy’s defense works. 


In early afternoon, Gen. Sullivan met with commanders under him to plan their next move.  Essentially, Sullivan’s men were to attack the fortified works of the enemy from the south and east with artillery and troops, while the men under Gen. Clinton were to attack the fortifications from the northeast. 


The 1st New Jersey Regiment under Col. Matthias Ogden, detached from Brig. Gen. William Maxwell’s New Jersey Brigade, slipped south and west along the Chemung River to come around to the right and rear of the Loyalist-Indian forces.  The New York Brigade under Brig. Gen. James Clinton and New Hampshire’s Brigade under Brig. Gen. Enoch Poor marched northwest through Hoffman Hollow toward the hill’s eastern slope where they turned to flank the British left.  At the same time, Sullivan’s Pennsylvania and New Jersey brigades stayed behind with the remaining light infantry companies.  Brig. Gen. William Maxwell’s 1st Brigade was to take aim at the center or face of the British breastworks.


Ten guns from the light infantry were placed near the road, ready to open fire on the defense positions and the land in between.  Once these guns began firing, Gen. Hand was to fake an attack on the center of the horseshoe breastworks while the brigades from the east were to turn inward, take the summit of the hill, and then turn to attack the left and rear section of the breastworks.  All together, with Maxwell’s artillery support, the goal of their three-pronged attack was to surround the defenseworks on the hill in a complete crossfire.


It was a detailed plan which was put together quickly, but one in which the troops readily proved their mettle.  The brief battle resulted in a significant defeat for the British Loyalists and Iroquois; however, it could have been much worse for them had it not been for unavoidable delays by the Sullivan-Clinton armies.  In maneuvering through the swampy ground of Hoffman Hollow, Poor’s and Clinton’s troops got bogged down.  This put the timing of the plan off, and caused enough of a delay that the Loyalist-Iroquois men escaped full encirclement and thus slipped the noose of an utter and complete defeat. 


In the meantime, Lt. Col. George Reid’s 2nd New Hampshire Regiment was to position itself to the left of Poor’s troops.  Unfortunately, with Reid’s men climbing the steepest part of the slope, they lagged behind the rest of the troops.  Joseph Brant took advantage of this opportunity to lead a counterattack with fellow Indians, almost completely encircling Reid.  Seeing this, the next regiment in line, the 3rd New Hampshire Regiment under Lt. Col. Henry Dearborn, turned around abruptly to fire into the enemy who were positioned downhill.  Clinton and his brigade, climbing up the hill from below and off to the right of Poor, saw these events unfold and sent his 3rd and 5th New York Regiments to Reid’s aid, further thwarting Brant’s attack.  [For more details, and above military placements see Wikipedia's Battle of Newtown.]




For a few hours, the peaceful valley and hills echoed with the blasting of cannons (ranging in size up to six-inch field howitzers), the resounding shots of a few thousand muskets, and the strong acrid smell of gun powder with its residual smoky haze.  The sounds of gunfire combined with the hair-raising battle cries of Indian warriors must have reached a deafening pitch at its peak.  Naturally, there were losses and injuries on both sides.  But, with the realization that they were overpowered, Loyalist Major John Butler, Capt. Walter Butler, and the Iroquois chief Joseph Brant wisely cut their losses and withdrew.  With their troops, they retreated towards Newtown and crossed the river with the Continentals in pursuit, but without additional losses on either side. 


After the battle, the Sullivan-Clinton Campaign continued on their way north through the finger lakes region, burning and destroying at least 40 Indian villages, reportedly destroying 160,000 bushels of corn and a significant quantity of vegetables and fruit which the Indians had set aside for winter.  By the end of September, the armies were returning to Morristown, New Jersey for the winter.


From Gen. Sullivan’s journal notes:

“Teaogo [Tioga], Sept, 30, 1779.

SIR:—In mine of the 30th ultimo to His Excellency George Washington, and by him transmitted to Congress, I gave an account of the victory obtained by this army over the enemy at Newtown, on the 29th August. I now do myself the honor to inform Congress of the progress of this army... The time taking up in destroying the corn, in the neighborhood of Newtown, employing the army near two days… I sent back all my heavy artillery on the night of the 30th, retaining only four brass three pounders, and a small howitzer; loaded the necessary ammunition on horseback, and marched early on the 31st for Catherine's Town. On our way we destroyed a small settlement of eight houses, and town called Konowhola, of about twenty houses, situated on a peninsula at the conflux of the Teaogo and Cayuga branches. We also destroyed several fields of corn. From this point Colonel Dayton was detached with his regiment and the rifle corps up the Teaogo about six miles, who destroyed several large fields of corn. The army resumed their march, and encamped within thirteen miles and a half of Catherine's Town, where we arrived the next day, although we had a road to open for the artillery, through a swamp nine miles in extent, and almost impervious. We arrived near Catherine's Town in the night, and moved on, in hopes to surprise it, but found it forsaken. On the next morning an old woman belonging to the Cayuga nation was found in the woods. She informed me that on the night after the battle of Newtown, the enemy, having fled the whole night, arrived there in great confusion early the next day; that she heard the warriors tell their women they were conquered and must fly; that they had a great many killed and vast numbers wounded…” 


The Iroquois, who had supported the British by attacking settlements, killing and taking captives, and feeding the British military, were now forced further west to Niagara and northwest into Canada.  Under protection of the British forts, but without their winter food supply, many died from starvation, disease and the winter’s cold.  Yet, even John Butler, in correspondence that previous May, had referred to the fact that the Indians were not doing well, lacking in production of their own food supplies.


Although successful at Newtown, the Sullivan-Clinton Campaign has often been referred to as a “well-executed failure.”  Congress congratulated them for what they had accomplished, but they were essentially not looked upon in a favorable light for their failure to take the British forts on Lake Ontario.  True, their armies destroyed the Indians settlements and crops throughout the finger lakes region, but Major General Sullivan stopped short of completing General Washington’s orders.  They had been ordered, and expected, to continue north to Lake Ontario and capture the British forts at Oswego and Niagara.


However, knowing their field artillery was limited to lighter guns, Sullivan and Clinton returned instead to headquarters in Morristown, New Jersey by the end of September.  In fairness to Sullivan, he realized he was not equipped with big enough artillery to take on the well-defended British forts; he and his troops would likely have been annihilated.  Also, in worsening health, Sullivan resigned command in November 1779 and returned to his home in New Hampshire.


With Sullivan not completing the balance of his campaign orders, Joseph Brant and his Indians returned to rejoin forces with the Loyalists in 1780.  Once again, they viciously attacked western settlements and the established communities back in the Mohawk and Schoharie Valley regions. 


These raids and massacres touched my ancestral families in that part of New York.  At Beaverdam (now Berne) near the Switzkill River on September 1, 1781, a British soldier led Loyalists and Indians in an attack on the Johannes Dietz family.  Johannes’ son, Capt. William Dietz, commanded the local Patriot militia, and was, therefore, a target of the Loyalists who engaged the Indians to make Dietz an example and put fear into the hearts of all other Patriot settlers.  After capture, William Dietz was forced to watch his elderly parents, wife, four young children and Scottish maid be killed and scalped.  Two young brothers who happened to be visiting from another family were also taken captive.  At Fort Niagara, Dietz died of a broken heart not long after arrival as witnessed by another captive from Schoharie County.  Capt. Dietz’s father, Johannes, was an older brother of my ancestor, John Hendrich/John Henry Dietz (referenced in my Independence Day article at my blog, Homespun Ancestors.  (Book source: “Old Hellebergh,” by Arthur B. Gregg, The Altamont Enterprise Publishers, Altamont, N.Y., 1936, p. 24; signed by Gregg, in my library from my father’s collection)  [See painting of Dietz Massacre by Jacob Dietz, son of Johannes, Courtesy of the Greater Oneonta Historical Society.]


The final and most devastating attack was in the lower Mohawk Valley in October 1781 where everything over a distance of 20 miles was utterly destroyed. 


When the war was over and the colonists had won, Joseph Brant and other Iroquois settled land given to them by the British Crown on the Grand River in Quebec (now Ontario).  The area of Brant’s river crossing became known as Brant’s ford, later simplified to Brantford.  Other Indians moved on to the Ohio River Valley region, or joined the Cherokee in the southern states.


Ultimately, the Newtown Battle, or Battle of Chemung, opened the narrow southern gate to settlers who had been forbidden from traveling through this part of Indian territory on their way to settling the western frontier.  For American soldiers who had fought in the Revolutionary War, the Chemung Valley drew many men back who had taken part in the Sullivan-Clinton Campaign. 


Certain to have admired the beautiful countryside in both Pennsylvania and New York while detailed there on campaigns, it was only natural former soldiers would seek its fertile land as their bounty award for service to their new government.  New England and eastern New York were considered heavily populated, with many regions too rocky for good farming.  Western New York was the perfect place to homestead with wide-open fertile land available to establish a new life.  With the soldiers settling this area, we can assume their descendants walk among us today, perhaps even unaware of their family’s history.

Linda Roorda

Whaling was not a romantic venture by any means.  It stunk… literally and figuratively.


“Some years ago – never mind how long precisely – having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world.”  So said Ishmael after sailing in 1841 on the Nantucket whaler Pequod under Capt. Ahab.  “Moby Dick,” a novel by Herman Melville of Troy in New York’s Hudson Valley, piqued its readers’ interest in the world of sailing and pursuit of leviathans, those great and plentiful whales of yesteryear. 


Ishmael’s adventure on the high seas left him forever immortalized as the sole survivor of a whaling trip gone awry.  In this epic sail, Capt. Ahab’s obsession for revenge against the white whale which took his leg created an undiluted raging hate that destroyed himself and his crew.  And Melville’s romanticized whaling venture proved the very real fears of family and friends of whalers were not unfounded.


When a whaling schooner put to sea it might be gone for months to a year or more at a time.  The trip was both boring and stressful, with frenzied excitement in the chase… but it was also an occupation filled with apprehension by living life so close to the brink of disaster.  Even the family left behind lived with constant fear… would their husband, father, or son be coming home, and when? 


Mariners and sailors of the open sea, who provided transportation of goods from one area to another, were of the same ilk.  It is well-known that they were hardy men of strong stock who braved the raw elements, loading and unloading ships, but they were also a loud and boisterous, fighting and swearing crew.  They were the backbone of commerce, providing the necessary resources to move foodstuffs and manufactured goods, but equally ready to defend a ship or nation from attack at a moment’s notice.


Mariners and whalers were vital to a growing world economy then just as today’s sailors or merchant seamen on cargo ships are.  And, in a sense, their traffic on the open sea can be likened to yesterday’s teamsters and trains and today’s tractor trailers which have been the mainstay of commercial transportation for the modern world’s products - always on the move.


But let’s imagine ourselves in a New England seaport where we happen to notice a woman standing at an upstairs window, gazing out to sea… watching, waiting, longing and hoping.  Her man, the love of her life, the father of her children, is a-whaling.  It’s been almost a year since she last saw him.  There’s been no word of him or the whaling schooner.  But wait… is that a sail peeking over the horizon… could it be his ship, or just another disappointment?  She waits, hope building, heart pounding...  As the schooner sails into the harbor, she recognizes the sails, the colors, the bowsprit… it’s his ship!  But… is he on it, or did he lose his life in the whaling boat?  She dashes out of the house, through the busy streets, down to the docks… and finally spies that familiar stride coming toward her, as she collapses into his arms.


In another town, another woman watches and waits for her man… a mariner and landowner, a fairly wealthy man who put to sea from Portsmouth, New Hampshire.  He’d struck quite a handsome figure when she first met him.  Hannah thinks back to those early days and how good he’s been to her.  She knows how much he loves her for he’s told her often, and brought treasured gifts from his trips.  He’s a good man, everyone likes him, and she’s so proud of him. 


Just then, her unborn little one stirs, and his movements bring a smile to her face and joy to her heart as she tenderly draws her shawl a little tighter in the cool air.  Comes the summer day in 1755 when her little one is born, and she names him for his father, giving her surname as his middle name, not a typical gesture for Scots-Irish.  But, when her beloved John sails back into harbor, his dear wife is not waiting at the dock for him.  And little John will never know his beautiful mother who dies soon after his birth.  Relinquishing his son to the care of his late wife’s parents, John returns to sea. 


Yet, neither will the little lad walk in his father’s footsteps.  He will never learn his father’s wisdom… for his father dies at sea in 1758, and there is buried.  He may have been part of the French and Indian War between 1754 and 1763... or, he may have taken sick and died at sea.  We don’t know.  And now, orphaned as a toddler, at so tender an age, little John C. is raised by his mother’s parents, eventually marrying his cousin, Hannah, who shared his mom’s name.  Within this story are interwoven documented facts of my ancestor, John Caldwell McNeill, the son of said mariner, John, of Londonderry and its environs in New Hampshire.  While John McNeill, Sr. left behind personal belongings (some from his time at sea) and several properties as documented in estate papers, no documentation has been found to prove his own parentage, nor where and how exactly he died. 


Though the sea has an unparalleled beauty all its own, it is also unforgiving and relentless.  And those answering its beckoning call with efforts to sail its wild forces will either become victor or the defeated. 


One of the most illustrious and admirable ancient occupations of the sea was found in the whaling industry.  With a knowledge rich in the history of the centuries-old business of whaling, Richard Ellis wrote in “Men and Whales” that “…it is only through the lens of hindsight that the whaleman's job becomes malicious or cruel…  Oil was needed for light and lubrication; baleen was needed for skirt hoops and corset stays.  That whales had to die to provide these things is a fact of seventeenth-, eighteenth-, and nineteenth-century life…"  (quoted in New Bedford Whaling Museum, Whales and Hunting)


It was a different era than ours.  Whales provided much to a civilization which gave no thought to the decimation of such a magnificent creature.  Whaling was simply a way of life, meeting life’s necessary accoutrements.  Few men beyond the company owners became wealthy from the whalers’ dangerous efforts.  For initial research, I turned to the New Bedford Whaling Museum website.  (URL at end of article)


Whalers brought home:  

1) sperm oil from the blubber of sperm whales; a light straw color, it was used for lubricating, lighting and soap;

2) spermaceti or head oil, particularly from the sperm whale, is a pearly-white translucent waxy liquid at body temperature, the most valuable product used for top-quality candles, medicinal ointment, sizing for combing wool, and used through the 1960s for leather tanning, in cosmetics, textiles, and typewriter ribbons;

3) a darker whale oil from the right, bowhead and humpback whales was used for lighting, lubrication, food, tempering steel, in the headlamps of miners, and in soap;

4) baleen, or whalebone, was made of keratin (in fingernails, hair, hooves and claws) which hangs from the mouth of 14 whale species; it acts as a strainer for krill in seawater, providing many 19th century goods for which today’s plastic or steel has taken over, including buggy whips, carriage springs, corset stays, fishing poles, hoops for skirts, umbrella ribs, etc.; and

5) ambergris (black to whitish gray) which came from the intestines of diseased sperm whales, used as incense and medicine in ancient times, now used primarily as a stabilizer in perfumes.    


Many New England ports were home to whalers, most notably Nantucket, Rhode Island and New Bedford, Massachusetts, while San Francisco, California became the popular base for Pacific whalers.  New Bedford was the busiest and wealthiest port along the eastern coast from Maine to Delaware.  In 1857, New Bedford’s fleet of whalers peaked at 329 vessels having a collective value of over $12 million, employing over 10,000 men.


From the New Bedford Whaling Museum website, we learn that whaler Benjamin Tucker returned to port in 1851 carrying “73,707 gallons of whale-oil, 5,348 gallons of sperm oil, and 30,012 pounds of whalebone (baleen).  After expenses, the net profit of Benjamin Tucker's voyage was $45,320.  The usual share for the owners of a ship was between 60 and 70 percent.  In this case, between $13,596 and $18,128 would have been left to be divided among the captain and crew for several years of work.”  


I was then caught by surprise to learn from a friend that the old North (aka Hudson) River in New York boasted a profitable home port for whalers putting out to sea.  Will Van Dorp has traveled New York City’s waterways, Hudson River, Erie Canal, Great Lakes (except Superior), and the St. Lawrence Seaway.  He has a captain's license, and works on a passenger vessel as an onboard lecturer.  He is also author/photographer of the blog Tugster, with photos and data on tugs and ships in what he’s termed New York City’s watery Sixth Boro.  In a recent conversation, Van Dorp shared with me the Hudson Valley Magazine’s April 2012 article on New York’s whaling industry.  “Hudson Valley Whaling Industry: A History of Claverack Landing (Hudson), NY,” written by David Levine, is an intriguing article which readily sent me off into further research.


New York’s North (Hudson) River provided three home ports to a thriving whaling industry for a good 60 years.  It’s believed the North River was so named by the early Dutch who gave directional names to the waterways around Manhattan.  To confuse us even a bit, there are maps and old photos which indicate interchangeable usage of North and Hudson River for the entire river’s length.  Some retained usage of North River for only the southernmost portion between New York City and northeast New Jersey, while the Hudson River designation was intended for that section of river above and within New York state.  A 1990 Hagstrom street map of New York City still labeled it the North River, although Hudson River, in honor of the 1609 explorer on the Halve Maen (Half Moon), has been preferred since the early 20th century.


But, were it not for the British Parliament’s 1766 duties and taxes on their thriving colony’s exports of whale oil, there may not have been a Hudson River whaling industry.  Reacting in 1774 to the British Intolerable Acts, the Colonial Continental Congress banned trade with England.  Naturally, Britain retaliated by blockading its colony’s ports in New England, including the highly successful port of Nantucket.  They captured and destroyed the colony’s ships on the seas, and forced American sailors to work on British ships.  The result was that New England’s strangled whaling industry was essentially dead in the water.


As the Revolutionary War came to a close in 1783, enterprising businessmen began searching for new ports and good land away from the effects of war.  From Nantucket, Seth and Thomas Jenkins sailed in search of a protected port, well away from marauders of the sea.  Finding just what they wanted along the Hudson River at an old Dutch community, they purchased land at Claverack Landing, New York.  Renaming the town Hudson in 1785 after the intrepid explorer, Henry Hudson, thirty proprietors (New England whalers and businessmen) laid out the new city and helped establish the shops needed to support a thriving whaling industry.  Though the ocean was over 100 miles south, the port soon became “one of the most important whaling centers in the country.”  (Levine) 


By about 1819 or 1820, however, and just when booming growth marked it as the fourth largest city in New York state, the Nantucket Navigators’ last whaling ship put to sea.  A new Hudson whaling company was created in 1829, while competition down river soon saw other whaling companies established.  In 1832, both the Poughkeepsie and Newburgh Whaling Companies sent whalers out, while the Dutchess Whaling Company in Poughkeepsie was established in 1833.  Yet, by about 1844, these highly profitable inland whaling companies also ceased to exist, and the industry as a whole began its slow decline with crude oil products taking over the market from whale blubber.  Though a relatively small city formerly known as Claverack Landing, Hudson had profited greatly from its flourishing whaling industry.  Essentially, that growth was relatively short-lived and smaller in volume in comparison to the resurgence of New England’s booming seaports at the edge of the sea.


So, what was involved in whaling to bring the goods back home?  Soon after putting out to sea, the men on a whaling schooner typically took 2-hour turns high up “in” the crow’s nest on the mast.  (The crow’s nest was a simple structure or platform for men to stand on near the top of the mast to get a good look into the distance.)  The job of the man “in” the crow’s nest was to look for the spout of a nearby whale when it came up for air.  Knowing that each type of whale had a distinctive type of spout when coming up for air was important in determining whether to pursue or not.  And with the shout, “Thar she blows!” the crew was in business.


Passing key information down about the kind of whale and exactly where it had been spotted brought the captain, mates and crew assembling in the whaleboats.  The remaining crew, often a cooper (who made and fixed wooden casks), blacksmith, carpenter, cook and steward, stayed behind to care for the ship and be ready for the returning whalers.  After launching their small whaleboats into the sea, rowing began in earnest to get the crew as close as possible to their intended prey. 


With the captain urging the men forward, their rowing efforts grew quieter the closer they came to the whale.  With its keen hearing, they were well aware that as they drew near, they could easily be crushed and drowned by the unpredictability of such a large leviathan.  The next danger they faced was in setting the harpoon, or whale iron, into the blubber of the whale’s back.  The harpoon was a long iron rod with either a single or double arrow-shaped tip which acted as a hook.  Once embedded in the whale, the harpoon’s attached rope, i.e. line, was allowed to play out its slack as the whale took off with a surge.

With the harpoon set in the large whale, the crew rapidly backed their boat away for their own safety.  As the wounded whale thrashed about in pain, it could irreparably damage their boat in a variety of scenarios.  The whale might escape if the harpoon wasn’t set deep enough.  It could also overturn and sink the whaleboat as it thrashed, leaving the men to flounder around at the mercy of the sea until their ship could find them which, unfortunately, wasn’t always the case.  It was not unusual to have several or all men lost during this part of the venture.


Then, while the whale swam easily near the water’s surface at speeds of up to 20 mph, the whaleboat began its wild ride, often being helplessly dragged and bounced along at the whim of the whale.  Sometimes, if they were taken too far, the mother ship was unable to locate the crew when they didn’t return in a reasonable amount of time.  As the whale swam and dove, the line usually “played out so fast that it smoked from the friction.”  And, if the whale dove deep and fast enough, the whaleboat could easily be taken down with it and all men lost.  Occasionally, a man managed to get tangled up in the fast-moving line and was all too quickly yanked out of the boat and drowned.


As the whale tired, the crew turned the line around a short post in the boat to take up the slack, all the while slowly gaining ground on their victim.  The crew would then maneuver their boat closer for the kill.  As the men reeled in the line, the harpooner would go aft to steer while the boatheader came forward with a lance.  Standing and walking was an extremely dangerous position change in an unsteady boat, leading to the death of one or both men on many occasions.  Then, when in position, the boatheader plunged his lance into the heart or lungs to kill the whale. 


At this point, the crew again rowed their boat quickly away while intently watching the whale as it thrashed about.  When the whale had died and turned over, the men attached a line to a hole made in the tail, and the exhausted crew worked even harder to tow the dead whale back to their ship.  Unless the ship was nearby, rowing as they hauled behind them a good 50 tons or more of dead weight meant their prize was by no means easily brought in.


By the late 1850s, harpoon guns had been developed which were much more accurate and able to penetrate deeper than a man’s throwing strength could bury the harpoon.  Other explosive devices were used after 1865 in an effort to more effectively and safely defeat the great whales and prevent the loss of life and boat as in years past.


When the crew arrived back at the schooner, the men worked in 6-hour shifts around the clock.  They had to complete the next phase as quickly as possible before frenzied sharks snatched up too much of their profit.  The whale was attached to the ship’s starboard (right) side with chains as the crew put a “cutting stage” (plank platform) atop the carcass.  Next, they stripped thick layers of blubber off the carcass with long spades.  Once these huge chunks were cut off, each weighing about a ton, they were hauled up on deck and cut into smaller, more manageable pieces.


Trying out, i.e. boiling or rendering, was the process that extracted oil from the blubber.  Initially done on shore, the crew began tackling this job on their schooner by the mid 19th century.  Big iron pots were set up in a brick stove with fire beneath the pots.  As oil was rendered from the blubber, it was then cooled, put into wooden casks, and stored in the ship’s hold below deck.  Typically, one barrel equaled 31-1/2 gallons.  Once on shore, this oil would be strained, bleached, and sold as lamp oil.


With little of the carcass going to waste, the head of the whale was prized for it contained oil more valuable than the blubber.  The top of the whale’s head held the purest oil called spermaceti, up to 500 gallons, and worth 3 to 5 times more than any other whale oil.  The lower half of the forehead contained additional oil which was boiled separately; it was less valuable than spermaceti, but still superior to the oil rendered from blubber.  The jaw and teeth were also saved and used by the crew to carve beautiful and delicate scrimshaw in their spare time.


But, processing the dead whale was virtually as dangerous as the hunt had been.  As the men worked, there was no way to avoid getting blood and oil on the wooden deck.  And, occasionally, someone slipped and fell overboard into the jaws of those ravenous sharks in the roiling waters below.  Other crewmembers might be crushed by the huge strips of heavy blubber, or injured by sharp harvesting tools.  At times, boisterous waves caused the ship to toss back and forth, sloshing boiling oil onto men, an injury they did not easily recover from, if at all.  And, there was even the rare occasion when fire for the rendering process spread and destroyed part or all of the ship.  Whaling was definitely not an easy job even for men at the peak of physical fitness.


Once each whale was processed and stored in barrels and casks below deck, the upper deck was scrubbed clean, and the men were back at their posts looking for the next whale.  Soon enough, “Thar she blows!” was heard from another watchman, and the entire process began again.  When the hold was filled to capacity, at times less so or even empty, the whaling schooner returned to home port for a respite.  To more fully appreciate an in-depth experience of yesterday’s whalers, check out the New Bedford Whaling Museum website.  The information and illustrations are impressive in explaining a way of life unknown to us today.


But, beyond all the hard work, the whaling ship and her hearty crew retained a certain stench, an odor that never seemed to dissipate.  Simply put, whalers stunk!  Even though the conscientious crew scrubbed their ship clean after each whale was processed, the malodorous aroma permeated everything.  As the New Bedford Whaling Museum website noted, “It was said that a ship downwind could smell a whaleship coming.”


Again, while most whaling schooners remained at sea for many months at a time, some were out for a year or several years at a time.  Not an arrangement exactly conducive to quality family life as we know it, theirs was simply an accepted way of life a few hundred years and more ago.  Occasionally, rather than remain alone at home for months or years at a time, some women sailed aboard whaling schooners which were then called “hen frigates.”  These women, alone or with children, were spouse of the captain or a crew member, and were also lookouts, cooks, and nurse to crew members who became ill or injured.


Obviously, the whaling schooner was a very welcome sight for many reasons as it sailed back into port after its time at sea.  As we look back in the mirror of hindsight, we understand the valuable resource whales were to the world’s economy.  But, we also realize the extent to which whales were decimated, and greatly appreciate those who began preservation efforts of these magnificent creatures of the sea.


Source information for this article and quotes, except as noted, and illustrations can be found at the New Bedford Whaling Museum website.

New Bedford Whaling Museum – Life Aboard a Whaling Ship

Hudson Valley Magazine, April 2012, by David Levine, “Hudson Valley Whaling Industry:  A History of Claverack Landing (Hudson), NY.”

Columbia County Historical Society, Hudson River Whaling: (data and illustrations)

Wikipedia: History of Whaling in the U.S.

For pictures of the whaling industry, see “The Spectacular Rise and Fall of U.S. Whaling: An Innovation Story”, by Derek Thompson in The Atlantic:

Nautical terms


Linda Roorda

Esther Hobart (McQuigg) (Slack) Morris was born August 8, 1812 in or near Spencer, Tioga County, New York. The “Mother of Woman Suffrage” as her oldest son, Edward, dubbed her, Esther holds the distinction of being the first American woman Justice of the Peace in 1870’s Wyoming Territory. As an early suffragist, she had an important role in gaining rights for women in Wyoming, playing a bit part in the early days of the national movement. This is her story… but first, a little background which led me to Esther.

Esther McQuigg Morris

While walking our former farm fields alongside the Catatonk Creek, the remaining dam structure and the back hill, I often pondered the fact that Esther and her extended families cleared and worked this land, hunted these hills, and sawed its timber. They watched countless sunrises and sunsets from the same perspective we have. They saw many a storm come down this valley from the north and west, smelled the same earthy aroma as spring arrived, stood in awe as beautiful rainbows appeared over that back hill, and admired the brilliant colorful hues of the valley’s various trees and sugar maples in the fall.

But, of interest to me personally, is Esther’s tie to the old “tenant house” as we called it when my husband’s Roorda family owned the farm on the corner of Ithaca Road and Fisher Settlement Road. This Greek Revival farmhouse had character! Built in the 1830s, it stood where our house was built in 1982. Esther grew up on the farmland here, but her brother, Daniel McQuigg, Jr. built this “little house” in the 1830s for his wife Eleanor’s mother, Mrs. (Rev. Asa) Cummings.


I loved its design and floorplan; but, alas, upkeep of the house had not been maintained during the nearly 150 years of its existence. By the time we contemplated renovating it, dry rot had consumed the support beams, the main floor had separated 3 inches from a main load-bearing inner wall, and the foundation was buckling. Original imperfect glass panes were still in the windows. And, while the main floor’s ceiling was 10-12 feet high, it was too low upstairs for my 6’7” husband to stand upright.

Though wood clapboard siding had been covered by ugly faux red brick asphalt sheet siding, I loved the Greek Revival design. Opening the front door, flanked by faux pillars and little windows, we entered the main hallway. To the left was the front parlor, formerly separated by sliding pocket doors (removed by a former tenant) which opened to the dining room. The second doorway on the left in the hall led into that dining room with its original but dysfunctional fireplace. To the left of the fireplace was a smaller room that had been converted into a bathroom. The door to the right of the fireplace led into the kitchen which had a door to the west porch entrance, and a rear door to a back shed. And, to the left at the rear of the kitchen was a door which opened onto a steep staircase and upper rooms.

This back staircase intrigued me as we climbed up to what was clearly servants’ quarters separated from the other rooms upstairs by a different door and latch than found in the rest of the house. At the top of the stairs which curved left was a small room. This room had what I perceived to be original early-mid 19th century wallpaper of young belles in hoop-skirt gowns. Back in the small open hall, there was a simple wooden railing protecting one from falling over and down the stairs. This open area had a small “sitting” area that overlooked the staircase, large enough for a small table and chair(s), with another small room to the side, directly above the kitchen. A door to the right in this hall led into a larger room. This room had a very antique simple latch/lock. In here, we found a large curtain stretcher frame which had likely seen decades of use in the distant past. Unfortunately, I never thought about donating it to the town’s historical society.

But, back on the first floor at the front entrance, we return to the main hall to take the stairs up. Ed and I recall that these stairs were so well built they did not squeak like those in our new house which squeaked fairly soon after being built! However, former occupants had also destroyed this staircase’s fancy posts and banisters for firewood. There were several rooms, two along the front, two on the side, and that larger room with the door which entered the servants’ quarters. But, again, the ceiling was so low that my husband could not stand upright at any point. And, as I said, the house was in such poor condition that it was not financially feasible for us to make renovations.

Apparently not long after this “little house” was built, a sugar maple was set centered halfway between the house and the road. Still thriving in 1982 when the house came down in the fire department’s practice burn, it was damaged by the fire. We used it for firewood, never thinking to count its rings.

Whether Esther Hobart McQuigg ever set foot in this house, I cannot say. Her middle name of Hobart was in honor of her mother’s family, early Massachusetts settlers who emigrated from England. Esther’s mother was Charlotte (Hobart) McQuigg, b. 1779 in Canaan, Litchfield County, CT, d. 1826 at Spencer, Tioga County, NY.

Charlotte’s father, Edmund Hobart, was b.1745 in Groton, Middlesex County, Massachusetts. On 01/01/1776, he married Mehetable/Mahitabel Peck at Canaan, Litchfield, CT, having nine children (Ancestry.com) – Prescott, Charlotte (Esther’s mother), Betsey (died young), Rodney, Mille, Isaac, William, Esther, and John. Edmund d.1808 aged 63 years, buried Spencer, while Mehetable d.1832 aged 77 years, making her birth about 1755, is also buried in Spencer’s Old Cemetery.

In 1795, Charlotte’s father, Edmund Hobart, traveled with wife and family likely by traditional wagon and oxen from Canaan, Litchfield County, CT, taking the popular road past Oneonta’s Otsego Lake. Passing through Owego, Tioga Co., NY, Edmund took his family on to Spencer, NY, purchasing land which then included our property. Hobart’s oldest son, Prescott, was b.1777 in Canaan, CT. Sadly, he holds the distinction of being the first death recorded within present-day Spencer soon after the town was settled. Injured while using the indispensable axe, 17-year-old Prescott died of lockjaw in 1795. He was buried on his father’s farm until land was set aside for a cemetery about 1800 from the estate of Joseph Barker in town. This became the Old Spencer Cemetery at the corner of Liberty and Main Streets. (Spencer History)

Edmund Hobart built a successful saw mill on the embankment above the Catatunk/Catatonk Creek, roughly 500 feet east of our house. A dam was built back to the steep hill which held back a 10-15 acre millpond to efficiently run the millwheel. The ubiquitous apple orchard was established below the mill on this side of the dam, trees still producing when my husband farmed with his father from 1968 to 1985. They provided shade for the cows, and bedding protection for deer as my son and I discovered on a hike one wintry day – along with tasty apples for the animals to enjoy!

Edmund Hobart’s second son, Rodney, operated a grist mill with Daniel McQuigg on the same mill site. Daniel McQuigg married Edmund Hobart’s daughter, Charlotte, purchasing the full property in 1815 after Edmund died. (Spencer History)  Later, the Cook Mill on the same ground was known to saw “50,000 to 100,000 feet of lumber per annum” even though not running at full capacity (per the late Jean Alve, Spencer Town Historian in “Sounds of Spencer”, Random Harvest Weekly, 01/11/95). The dam was eventually breached and drained, creating a large field which my husband said contained very fertile “river-bottom” loam. All that remains of the mill(s) is a large pile of rocks among which we found a few small antique bottles. The dam was removed entirely to make way for Hollybrook Country Club’s golf course in the early 2000s.

There is quite a rich family history for Esther Hobart McQuigg and her paternal Hobart ancestors placed by a descendant at Find-A-Grave(FAGM) Edmund Hobart’s father was Shebuel Hobart, Jr., b.1715, Groton, Middlesex Co., MA, d.1805 at 90, Westfield, Chittenden Co., VT. He married Esther Parker in Groton in 1739, having 10 children. Esther was b.1721, Groton, Middlesex Co., MA, d.1789, aged 68, Hollis, Hillsborough Co., NH.

Shebuel Hobart, Sr. was b.1682 in Groton, Mass, d.1764 at Pepperell, Middlesex Co., MA; he mar. Martha Prescott b.1690, Groton, MA, d.1774 aged 84 yrs, Townsend, Middlesex Co., MA. Shebuel’s parents were Rev. Gershom Hobart, b.1645 of Plymouth County, MA, a graduate of Harvard seminary in 1667; he m. Sarah Aldis in 1675, b.1652, 14 children. Gershom survived the Groton, Massachusetts Indian massacre of 1676; one of his children was killed, while one taken captive was released a year later. Gershom’s father was Rev. Peter Hobart, b.1604 of Hingham, Norfolk, England; he is said to have arrived at Charlestown, Massachusetts on June 8, 1635. (FAGM)
~~ ~~ ~~
Esther’s father, Daniel McQuigg, Sr. was b.1776 in either New Hampshire or Massachusetts, and d.1833 in Spencer, Tioga Co., NY. Meeting in Spencer, Daniel Sr. married Charlotte Hobart, b.1779 in Connecticut; she died 1826 in Spencer, NY. They had 11 children, including (per the late Jean Alve, Spencer Town Historian): Daniel, Jr., b.1801, Charles b.1803, John b.1805, Edmund H. b.1807 in Spencer, Jane b.1808, brother Jesse/Jessie b.1810, Esther Hobart b.1812 (J.A.) or 1814 (online), brother Mindwell b.1814, Eliza b.1816, Charlotte Susan b.1819, and George b.1821.

John McQuigg, Jr., Esther’s grandfather, a Revolutionary soldier, arrived in Owego, NY from Massachusetts between 1785-1788. He was b. 1750 in Hillsborough Co., NH, d.1804 Owego, Tioga Co., NY. (FAGM) He m. 1) Mollie Gilmore – ch.: John M. McQuigg, III, b. Oct 13, 1771; and 2) Sarah Coburn – ch.: Mary b.1774, Daniel Sr. b.1776, Elizabeth b.1778, Robert b.1780, Jesse b.1783, Sarah b.1783, Patience b.1787, David b.1791, Rachel b/1793, Jane b.1795, Diadana b.1796. (J.A.)

John McQuigg, Jr.’s will was probated in December 1804, presumably the year he died (FAGM), though Alve noted he died in Owego in 1813. He was buried in the cemetery of Owego’s first church. After the church burned, the graveyard on Court Street was abandoned with John McQuigg’s gravesite now unknown. (FAGM) Spencer Town Historian, Jean Alve (JA), wrote in her 08/03/85 newspaper article, “A Pioneer Family and a Family of Pioneers”, that “John McQuigg of Scots-Irish descent came from Massachusetts to the village of Owego by way of Otsego Lake and the trail along the Susquehanna river in the period from 1785-1788. He died in Owego in 1813.” But, if his will was probated in December 1804 (FAGM), then he obviously died prior to 1813 (JA).

John McQuigg, Sr., was b. 1706 and d. 1794 in Bedford, Hillsborough Co., NH, recorded as a petitioner for the incorporation of Bedford May 10, 1750, a selectman from 1752-1759. He m. Mildred Lawson b. 1710, d. 1788. (FAGM)
~~ ~~ ~~
Into this hardy family was born Esther Hobart McQuigg, clearly descended from a long line of survivors unafraid of life on the western frontier.

As a daughter of Daniel, Sr. and Charlotte (Hobart) McQuigg, Esther was the eighth of eleven children, the second of four daughters. By the time she was 11, Esther and her siblings had become orphans, their mother dying in 1826, their father in 1833. Her youngest siblings were sent to live with older siblings or various relatives in New York and Ohio, possibly Michigan, while Esther was apprenticed to a seamstress. She “ran a successful millinery business from her grandparents’ home [perhaps her Hobart grandmother], ‘making hats, and buying and selling goods for women.’” Esther was also not afraid to take a stand as an abolitionist in opposing pro-slavery rivals threatening to destroy a church.

Two days after her birthday at age 29 in 1841, Esther married Artemas Slack of Owego on August 10, 1841 in Owego, Tioga Co., NY. A civil engineer with the Erie Railroad, Artemas was b. March 5, 1811, son of Jesse and Betsy (Burnham) Slack of Windsor, Vermont. Artemas and Esther’s son, Edward Archibald Slack, was born October 1842 at Owego, NY. Sadly, just seven short months later, Artemas Slack died in May 1843 at 32 years. “As a highly respected civil engineer, Artemas traveled throughout the Upper Midwest until he was accidentally killed in Illinois.” (p.11. Wyoming Woman Suffrage, WWS.)  Artemas was buried in the Presbyterian Church Burying Ground at Owego, NY, leaving Esther a young widow and single mother. (Find-A-Grave, FAGM)

Since Artemas left property in Illinois to his wife, Esther removed to Peru with her young son, Edward Archibald. There, “Ester Slack” met John Morris, “a prosperous merchant and shopkeeper,” whom she married in Peru, Illinois on February 17, 1846 as recorded in the registry at LaSalle County, Illinois. (Biographical Encyclopedia, BE)

John Morris was born 1812 per gravestone, or between 1813-1817 in Poland per Federal census records (age 33, merchant, in 1850; 44 in 1860; and 57, miner, in 1870). The U.S. Army Enlistment Record (Ancestry.com) notes his enlistment on January 2, 1836 as John Moryoski, age 22, born 1814, Brestezo, Poland, a farmer. He was noted to be a saloon keeper, miner, and then a coroner in 1872. John and Esther’s first son, John, died as an infant, with twin sons born November 8, 1851 in Peru, Illinois – Edward J. and Robert C.

Edward J. Morris (1851-1902) was elected assessor of Laramie County, County Clerk of Sweetwater County, and was a partner in the W.A. Johnson store in Green River, later known as the Morris Mercantile Company, and also established the Morris State Bank. (FAGM)

Robert C. Morris (1851-1921) was noted to be “the most expert reporter the state ever had” for the Wyoming State Supreme Court, later partnered with his twin brother in the Morris Mercantile Company in Green River, taking over the business after his brother died. (FAGM)

As above, Esther was born in or near Spencer, Tioga County, NY on August 8, 1812 (year on tombstone photo at FAGM; date per JA) or 1814 as per numerous articles about her. Even Federal census records note her age discrepancies (Ancestry.com):
1850 age 32, husband John Morris, age 33, Archibald Slack 7 (her son), John Morris 1, Salisbury, LaSalle County, Illinois;
1860 age 43, listed as “Sarah”, husband John Merris/Morris age 44, twin sons Edwin and Robert, both age 8, Peru, LaSalle Co., IL;
1870, June 1st, age 57 as was husband John, South Pass City, Sweetwater, Wyoming Territory.
1880 age 77, census taken on the 4th and 5th days of June 1880, Sangamon, Springfield Co., IL. (Note 20 year age discrepancy between 1870 to 1880 by my review Ancestry.com.)
1900 age 85, 86 or 87, with 7 written above a 5 which also appears to have a 6 within it, residing in the home of her son, “R.C. Morris” (Robert C.). Perhaps she had previously claimed a younger age than she actually was so as not to be listed older than her second husband, John Morris.

Published August 3, 1950 in the “Waterloo Daily Courier” of Waterloo, Iowa under Ripley’s Believe It Or Not – “Mrs. Esther Morris of Cheyenne Wyoming was a justice of the peace 48 years before the U.S. gave women the right to vote! The first Woman Judge – Mrs. Esther McQuigg Morris (1813-1902), who died at Cheyanne, Wyo. on April 2, 1902, at the age of eighty-nine, was known as the ‘Mother of Woman Suffrage in Wyoming.’ She was the first woman judge in America, being chosen justice of the peace of South Pass City, Wyo. in 1870, shortly after women received the vote in the Territory, but 48 years before the U.S. gave women the right to vote.” (Ancestry.com) With her 90th birthday upcoming in August 1902, this notice would make her birth year the more accurate 1812.

In July 1869, John and Esther Morris joined the gold rush and moved their young family west, not to California but to South Pass City in Sweetwater County, Wyoming Territory. Gold was discovered here in the late 1860s. Though the working Carissa Mine closed in 1956, it remains open for public tours.  With their children, John and Esther settled into a 24×26 foot log cabin on Lot 38, South Pass Avenue. (pg.11, Wyoming Woman Suffrage, WWS) The 1870 Federal Census for South Pass City records John, age 57, a miner, with his wife Ester, age 57, Justice of the Peace, Edward, age 19, occupation of clerk in store, Robert, 19, Deputy District Clerk, and Edward Slack, age 27, District Clerk.

Esther Hobart (McQuigg) (Slack) Morris was a woman of stature, a hardy pioneer. “Nearly six feet tall, weighing a hefty 180 pounds…a born reformer,” Esther was a woman who radiated strength. Speaking in a “blunt and fiery” manner and adept at articulate passionate speeches, she was a fervent crusader for her cause. (BE) With her ancestral background of pioneers on new western fronts, she supported and promoted women’s rights at a time when it was more often a volatile subject. After America’s Civil War granted rights to former slaves, she was now among the increasing voices promoting woman suffrage, or right to vote.

In Wyoming Territory, William H. Bright, introduced CB70, the suffrage bill to give women their right to vote and hold office. “Passing CB70 was not a joke gone awry. Instead, a genuine belief in woman suffrage, a way to promote the territory, and the notion of temporary experiment with this reform influenced the Wyoming legislators.” (pg.8, WWS) It was believed that “Being the first government to pass a woman suffrage bill would invite national publicity and create a positive, progressive image which would induce more settlement.” (pg.9-10, WWS)

On December 10, 1869, women were, indeed, granted the right to vote in Wyoming. “This same group of lawmakers also gave married women control of their own property and provided for equal pay for women teachers, many years before most other states would even begin contemplating such legislation.” It was of note that within a short time, the nation’s first female jurors were also seated, as was the nation’s first woman justice of the peace. (BE)

Not long after, on February 14, 1870, Esther Morris began her appointment as Justice of the Peace for South Pass City, Sweetwater County in Wyoming Territory. She paved the way as the first American woman ever to hold such a position. Newspapers around the nation informed interested readers of her auspicious appointment. Morris presided over a rowdy western town of about 2000 souls for eight-and-a-half months. Alcohol was readily available from two breweries for miners who frequented “a dozen saloons and several brothels.” https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/23/obituaries/overlooked-esther-morris.html Morris tried about 30 cases (New York Times Obituaries, NYT)  or 27 cases (pg.14, WWS), or over 70 minor cases (BE), meting out justice as her strong common sense deemed appropriate. Most cases brought before her involved debt disagreements, but she adjudicated “ten assault cases, including three with the intent to kill.” (pg.14, WWS)  Indicative of Morris’s ability is that not one of her decisions was reversed by a higher court, even after one case was taken to appellate court.

As expected, the era’s news media “found the idea of a female judge somewhat amusing, or so their reports on Morris’s tenure would suggest. In April 1870, Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper recounted her first day in court, focusing primarily on what she wore – ‘a calico gown, worsted breakfast-shawl, green ribbons in her hair, and a green neck-tie’. A few months later, the same publication called Morris ‘the terror of all rogues’ and said she offered ‘infinite delight to all lovers of peace and virtue.’” (NYT)

A year later in June 1871, Morris supposedly issued a warrant against her husband for assault. Quite possibly a rumor, “one story asserted Esther had tried her husband, John, for drunkenness and had him tossed in jail. Denying it, she replied, ‘A man is not alowd to be judge of his wife much less a woman of her husband. It would not be a legal proseding.’ Common sense, more than the knowledge of the law, explains the success of Morris’ tenure as justice.” [pg. 14, WWS]

At the conclusion of her term, Esther decided not to seek reelection. Her son, Robert, “explained his mother’s decision by noting she had received ‘much glory’ from holding the job and demonstrated that women could perform well in elected office. In other words, she had accomplished her goals.” She also knew her husband opposed woman suffrage and probably her job as justice of the peace. [pg.14, WWS] Unfortunately, with their marriage already failing, the couple separated. Leaving John Morris behind, Esther Morris removed to Laramie, Wyoming to be near her eldest son, Edward Slack, a newspaper editor. (BE)

Morris recognized her own role in the national emergence of women’s suffrage. After completing her term as justice of the peace in 1871, she wrote a prominent suffragist, Isabella Beecher Hooker. Her letter was read at the national suffrage convention in Washington, D.C., and printed in Wyoming’s “The Laramie Daily Sentinel”: (NYT) “Circumstances have transpired to make my position as a justice of the peace a test of woman’s ability to hold public office… I feel that my work has been satisfactory.” In describing some of her responsibilities such as assisting in picking juries, depositing a ballot, canvassing votes after an election, Morris noted that “in performing all these duties I do not know as I have neglected my family any more than in ordinary shopping.” (NYT)

In 1873, John Morris bought his first liquor license for his saloon, continued to work in the local mines and speculated in properties. (WWS)  He died in South Pass City on September 29, 1877. [In 2011, Clint Black noted for Find-A-Grave that “John’s gravestone in Cheyenne may be a memorial. City records record burial in 1876.”] John’s obituary in the Cheyenne Sun noted he was the step-father of the paper’s editor, Edward Slack. Age 63 at death, he had emigrated from Poland, arrived in South Pass City in 1868, established himself as a saloon keeper, a miner, and elected coroner in 1872. (FAGM)

In the same year of 1873, Esther Morris was nominated for Wyoming state representative from Albany County on a woman’s ticket. Withdrawing not long afterward from the election bid, she made it clear, however, that she was still very much a part of the “woman’s cause.” Moving back east to Albany, New York in 1874, she continued her suffragist efforts, taking part in ceremonies for the 1876 “Declaration of Rights for Women” at Philadelphia’s Centennial Exhibition.

Traveling west yet again, Morris eventually settled in Cheyenne, Wyoming in 1890 where her son, Col. Edward Archibald Slack (1842-1907), had become owner/editor of the Cheyenne News and later the Daily Leader. Slack gave his mother the honorary title of “Mother of Woman Suffrage.” Previously, Col. Slack had begun the publication of the Laramie Independent newspaper, followed by the Laramie Sun.

This was also the year of Wyoming’s statehood, being the 44th to join the Union on July 10, 1890. During celebrations, Morris, “honored and respected for her great ability and heroic womanhood,” was given a prominent celebratory role. Morris presented Gov. Francis E. Warren the new state flag of Wyoming “on behalf of the women of Wyoming, and in grateful recognition of the high privilege of citizenship that has been conferred upon us.” (NYT)

Morris was part of a tour by Susan B. Anthony in 1893 when Colorado women received the vote, attending a dinner given for Anthony in 1895. That same year, Morris was also elected a delegate from Wyoming to the national suffrage convention in Cleveland, Ohio. (BE)

Esther Hobart (McQuigg) (Slack) Morris died at age 87 or 89 (depending on source) on April 2, 1902 at home in Cheyenne, Wyoming, the town where she is buried.

A pamphlet published in 1920 on Wyoming suffrage by local historian Grace Raymond Hebard contributed in great part to establishing Morris’s reputation for the many women’s rights she helped achieve. In 1960, statues to honor Morris were placed in Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol and in the state house at Cheyenne, Wyoming. (BE)

Though Esther Morris will always be remembered for her brief time as the first woman Justice of the Peace, she is only rarely mentioned for her important advocacy for women’s suffrage. Yet, she worked fervently among the more recognizable suffragists like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Sojourner Truth (born Isabella Baumfree), Lucy Stone, Julia Ward Howe, Carrie Chapman Catt, Lucretia Mott, and so many others.

Being the first woman justice of the peace, Morris is typically named alongside Jeannette Rankin of Montana, the first woman elected to Congress in 1917, and Sandra Day O’Connor who, in 1981, became the first woman Supreme Court justice. (NYT) Not until 1920 were all American women given the right to vote, women who have benefited from Morris’s “satisfactory” execution of the trust placed in her as the first American woman justice of the peace.

As noted, the three sons of Esther Hobart (McQuigg) (Slack) Morris carried on their mother’s legacy and that of her siblings and extended family as leaders within their communities… rather fitting for a woman of hardy pioneer stock.

Linda Roorda

On a hill looking south over Owego stands a white marble obelisk, visible from across the river when the leaves are down.  Its prominence denotes the Evergreen Cemetery, and specifically marks the grave of a young Mohawk Indian maiden.  The site chosen for her memorial displays a stunningly beautiful panorama of the town below as the Susquehanna River wends its way through the midst of what was once thick virgin forest.  And it’s not too difficult to imagine the Native Americans who once lived and traveled this waterway through our beautiful and fertile land.


The elegant 17-foot tall monument was erected by private donations from the good people of Owego and other cities after the young woman’s death.  Her epitaph reads:  “In memory of Sa-Sa-Na Loft, an Indian Maiden of Mohawk-Woods, Canada West, who lost her life in the Railroad Disaster at Deposit, N.Y., February 18, 1852, Aged 21 years.”  [Searles, p.29]


A carved wild rose with a broken stem and missing leaf adorns the back of the monument.  Facing west are the words, “By birth a daughter of the forest, By adoption a child of God.”  Sa-Sa-Na is buried at the foot of this elegant monument, facing the sunrise to the east.  [Searles, p.29]


Several websites about Sa-Sa-Na include the words from a poem “Do Not Stand at My Grave and Weep” with claims it is a Native American prayer.  This poem, with its origins in dispute, was confirmed in 1998 by Abigail Van Buren to have been written by Mary Elizabeth Frye in 1932:  "Do not stand by my grave and cry... I am not there, I did not die." 


Many are the visitors who have reported hearing a voice softly singing while they sit upon a bench in front of the wrought-iron fence which surrounds and protects her gravesite.  If the singing be nothing more than leaves gently swaying in the breeze, the ambience denotes a quiet and peaceful setting.


Sa-Sa-Na (Indian equivalent of the English Susannah) Loft was a direct descendant of Joseph Brant (Thayendanegea), the Mohawk chief who had caused much fear and destruction during the Revolutionary War.  With the colonists’ revolt against the British Crown, most of the Iroquois nation felt their alliance with Britain was key to stemming the tide of colonists who were taking more and more of their ancestral lands.  Maintaining his ties to the Crown, Brant (commissioned a Colonel) led numerous attacks on various communities within New York. 


When the war for independence began, many of the Iroquois nation in the Mohawk Valley region of New York removed to what was called “The Mohawk Woods” in the township of Thayendanegea/Tyendinaga on Canada’s Salmon River.  The Loft family, living near Canajoharie, was among those fleeing the Mohawk Valley for the safety of Canada.  [Searles, p.8-9] 


After Britain’s loss to the upstart American nation, more Iroquois resettled on Canadian soil given to them by the British Crown (as did white Loyalists from within New York State).  On May 22, 1784, twenty canoes holding fifteen Indian families under Capt. John Deserontyon landed on the shore of the Bay of Quinte for their land reserve of 92,000 acres.  The township of Tyendinaga (i.e. Thayandanegea, Joseph Brant’s Mohawk name) is west of Kingston in Hastings County; specifically, it is west of Deseronto and east of Belleville along the Salmon River on the northeastern end of Lake Ontario.  Others followed Joseph Brant to what became known as Brant’s Ford on the Grand River, now Brantford, Ontario, Canada.  This community is about 25-30 miles west of Hamilton and Burlington, both of which are situated on the far western shores of Lake Ontario. 


A venerable warrior and revered chief of his people, Joseph Brant was born somewhere along the Ohio River in 1742.  His father died when he was still an infant, while his widowed mother, Owandah, raised her family with, presumably, assistance from their tribe in colonial New York.  Mary/Molly Brant, Joseph's older sister, became the common-law wife of Sir William Johnson.  As the British Superintendant of Indian Affairs, Johnson played a major role in supporting the Crown during the late 18th century in the province of New York.  He was also an instrumental force in helping educate the illiterate young Brant.  At age 14, Brant left home to become a student at Moor’s Indian Charity School in Connecticut (the forerunner of Dartmouth College) under Dr. Eleazer Wheelock.  Returning home with an education, Brant attained new roles in leadership of the Iroquois and as the head of his own family.  After the deaths of his first two wives, Peggy/Margaret and Susannah, he married Catherine Croghan in 1780 with whom he raised a family of seven children.


With his natural abilities well suited to the role of chief and leader of the Iroquois nation, Brant was instrumental in securing peace treaties after the Revolutionary War between the United States government and other Native American tribes.  Having already proven himself a worthy warrior not only by his bravery in battle but as a leader of his people, he now proved his prowess as politician and diplomat.  But, more importantly, Brant also encouraged his people to settle their disputes and end the warfare against the ever-expanding white frontier settlements.  He then devoted the balance of his life to missionary work, including the raising of funds to build the first Episcopal church in Canada. 


Appreciating his own education, Brant believed there was much to learn from the whites and their patriarchal society, which differed from the traditional Indian matriarchal society.  He felt strongly that, for the Indians to survive, they would need to incorporate more of the methods used by whites not only in their agricultural future, but in virtually every other aspect of life.  Having become a Christian (Anglican/Episcopalian) and a Freemason, Brant also believed in educating their own youth so that they, too, could succeed like the white man as the world around them continued its progressive change.


His last words to his adopted nephew show how committed he had become to the intellectual and spiritual advancement of his own people:  “Have pity on the poor Indians.  If you have any influence with the great, endeavor to use it for their good.”  Brant died on Nov 24, 1807 at his home in what is now Burlington, Ontario.  He is buried at Her Majesty’s Chapel of the Mohawks (originally St. Paul’s, built in 1785), the oldest Protestant church in Brantford, Ontario, with a memorial statue erected in 1886 to his memory. 


And into this heritage was born Sa-Sa-Na Loft.  From a Canadian biography of her brother, George Rok-Wa-Ho Loft, four children were born to Henry Loft and his wife Jemima (or Ya-Go-We-A, also their youngest daughter’s name).  Direct descendants of Brant, the Loft children’s maternal ties were of the unmixed Mohawks living in the township of Thayandanegea/Tyendinaga near the Bay of Quinte.  Henry’s father, David Loft, was a St. Francis Indian (Abenaki tribe) while Jemima was a Mohawk. 


Sa-Sa-Na’s older brother, Rok-Wa-Ho (George Rokwaho Loft), married Ellen Smith, also a Mohawk.  They were parents of Frederick Ogilvie Loft and William Loft, both of whom have continued Brant’s legacy in promoting the betterment of the Mohawk Indians as a whole. 


Growing up on the reservation known as The Mohawk Woods in the township of Tyendinaga on the Salmon River in Ontario, Canada, the Loft children received a good education through the work of the local mission school.  Understanding the importance of meeting the spiritual needs of his people, Brant had had several books of the Bible translated into their native language, including Genesis and the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, along with the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, and other Christian writings.  Through the local mission’s efforts, the Loft family and children also converted to Christianity.


With the two older Loft children having been educated at the mission school several miles away from home, they then taught Sa-Sa-Na at home.  The wife of the Episcopal minister in Kingston also gave music lessons to train Sa-Sa-Na’s beautiful voice, who in turn taught her younger sister, Ya-Go-Weia, all she knew. 


In their longing to help provide a quality education and to Christianize more of their people, Rok-Wa-Ho and his two younger sisters, Sa-Sa-Na and Ya-Go-Weia, commenced a singing tour throughout New York state.  Since their oldest sister was married at the time, she remained home with their widowed mother.  Traveling to raise funds to help educate their people, their efforts were rewarded in helping to eventually build a church within their own community. 


On February 15 and 16, 1852, the Loft siblings arrived at Owego, New York where the sisters gave two concerts, and received a warm welcome from the townspeople.  Sponsored by Judge Charles P. Avery, they stayed as guests at his home on Front Street in Owego, along the Susquehanna River.  Avery was a man with considerable interest in preserving local Indian history within colonial Tioga County, and thus his eager support of the Lofts.


The siblings next traveled east to Deposit.  At the Oquaga Theater, they gave another sacred concert on February 17th.  They were well received at both towns just as they had been at other stops throughout New York, and were greatly admired for their efforts to assist their indigent nation back home.


In Deposit the next day, February 18th, while their brother purchased tickets at the station, the sisters boarded the passenger train and took their seats.  Unbeknownst to everyone, just eight miles away on the same track, an engineer lost control of his freight train at “The Summit” [also called Gulf Summit], the peak of a steep downgrade [from my knowledge of the area, I presume this to be part of the summit of Belden Hill on Rt. 7.]  Knowing what the end result would be, the engineer jumped the train as it gained unrelenting speed on its headlong run down the track covered in snow and ice.  Hearing an alarm sounding for the fast-approaching runaway train racing toward their standing train, both sisters managed to jump from their car onto the station platform.  Unfortunately, as she jumped, Sa-Sa-Na lost her balance and fell backward onto the car they’d just left, being crushed and scalded to death as the freight train crashed at that very instant with a horrendous slam and explosion of steam.


The Owego Gazette for Thursday, February 19, 1852 included this brief notice:  “Frightful Rail Road Accidents.  Deposit 18, 1852.  Freight Train East ran in to mail train going east at this station today, and one person, the elder Indian girl killed.  One lady from Great Bend badly scalded.  One man badly injured.  Freight train coming down the summit became unmanageable.  No others injured.”  [Both Miss Susan Wisner, 18, of Goshen, Orange County, NY and Patrick Moony from Susquehanna, PA died soon afterward from their injuries.  [Searles, p. 105-107, The Deposit Courier, Feb. 21, 1852.]


Sa-Sa-Na’s funeral was held in Owego on February 20, 1852 “with impressive services at the Episcopal Church, and at the grave [with] Rev. Mr. Watson officiating.”  [Searles, p.108, The Owego Gazette, February 21, 1852] 


A lengthy obituary of Sa-Sa-Na by the Hon. Charles P. Avery was included in the small handbook, “Memorial of Sa-Sa-Na.”  [Searles, p.83]   A poem written by W. H. C. Hosmer titled simply, “Lament of Sa-Sa-Na” was read at her funeral.  [Too lengthy to include here, it can be located online.]  The obituary, sermon and poem were included in an 1852 memorial pamphlet which was entitled, “To the memory of SA-SA-NA- LOFT, noble, lovely, self-devoted – early mourned; and to those who love and cherish her memory, these brief pages are dedicated.”  [Published at Hamilton, Ontario, Canada.] 


Great crowds gathered to show their grief in support of the surviving siblings.  They had become very fond of the three Indian youths and their endeavors to raise funds for the education of their tribe.  The deeply saddened Rok-Wa-Ho is quoted as saying, “One half the burden of the load is lifted from our hearts” following the great kindness shown to them by Owego’s citizens.  [Searles, p.33, excerpt from Star-Gazette Sunday Telegram, May 19, 1985]


A memorial service subsequent to that in Owego was held at St. Thomas’ Church in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada on February 29, 1852, with a sermon given by the rector S. H. Norton.  He referenced Ecclesiastes 3:4:  “A time to weep and…a time to mourn.”  [Searles, p.89, from the booklet “A Memorial of Sa-Sa-Na, the Mohawk Maiden…”]


“The Deposit Courier” of Wednesday, February 25, 1852 included a poem “In memory of Miss Sasaneah Loft, the Indian Singing Girl, a victim of one of the late fatal accidents on the N.Y. and Erie Railroad:

‘To her Father, the ‘Great Spirit,’

The forest child has fled; -

Sharp was the arrow, brief the pang

That laid her with the dead!

But yesterday, and she was here

Gay as the fawns that bound

In sportive grace and joyousness

Her woodland home around…

Long, long, in sylvan solitudes

Will sound the tale, I ween,

How the Great Spirit called to heaven

Their bright, accomplished queen.’

From the Oxford Times, Feb. 21, 1852.”

[Searles, p. 118, The Deposit Courier]


Intending to return his sister’s body to Canada for burial, Rok-Wa-Ho was persuaded by Judge Avery to allow her remains to be placed in the Avery vault at the Presbyterian Church on Temple Street.  A committal service for her was held the following spring at Evergreen Cemetery on the hill above Owego. 


With letters of administration from Surrogate Court, Judge Avery sued the railroad company on behalf of Sa-Sa-Na’s family.  Receiving a payment of $2000.00 in September 1852, he turned the money over to the Loft family.  Upon receipt of these funds, they were then able to provide for “publication of religious books, in the Mohawk language, for the education and Christianization of the Mohawk people at the reservation in Canada.”  [Searles, p.25-26, from Deposit Courier Magazine, March/April 1957.]


To provide a monument at Sa-Sa-Na Loft’s burial site, the Owego women raised funds locally and from communities as far away as Albany, Auburn, Binghamton and Oxford where the Loft siblings had given concerts.  When sufficient funds were received, a beautiful white marble obelisk was purchased at cost, $201.58 (for a monument valued at the substantial sum of $400), from the Owego Marble Factory of G. W. Phillips who obtained the shaft and bases from Vermont’s Rutland Quarry.  This monument was erected in May 1855 as a lasting memorial to the young woman with whom the community had fallen in love.


Little known to the rest of the world, Mohawk Indians apparently arrive each spring at Evergreen Cemetery to pay their respects to the memory of Sa-Sa-Na.  At times, the chief attends in full Indian dress.  “As is the custom of the Indians they arrive and leave quietly and, unless someone happens to be in the vicinity of the monument at the time, no one is the wiser for their tribute.”  [Searles, p.8-9, “Still visited by Her People, the Saga of Sa-Sa-Na Loft”  in “An Owego paper, date unknown, from the scrapbook of Ruth S. Tilly.”] 


How fitting that, at least in the past, a quiet and unassuming tribute has been paid each year by the Mohawks to the memory of Sa-Sa-Na, one of their own… a moving tribute to a kind and compassionate young woman who ventured forth with the simple and noble ambition of raising funds to further educate more of her beloved people… her enduring legacy.


And so, closing my eyes, I visualize the solemn occasion as the chief arrives bearing a visage of serenity.  Slowly and quietly he walks to the edge of Sa-Sa-Na’s grave.  Head bowed, he pauses to contemplate… and to remember all he’s heard about this young woman in stories passed from generation to generation.  As he lifts his eyes toward the sun, his own face shines with a joy for one so young whose tender heart touched so many… one whose life ended far too soon… but one who left a lasting legacy of love and concern for her people.  And with hands raised to the sky, he thanks the Great Creator for blessing their nation with the beauty of Sa-Sa-Na’s life.


MAIN SOURCE (other websites on request):  “Sa-Sa-Na Loft, Owego’s Indian Maiden, A Historical Anthology,” compiled by Marilyn T. Searles, 2001 (held at Coburn Library, Owego, New York).

Linda Roorda

There are special memories we treasure and renew each Christmas season, no matter what!  It seems that to honor this most treasured holiday is in our soul, for the birth of Baby Jesus brought treasured Joy and Love into our world.  As we celebrate this joyous holiday, we enjoy making or buying special gifts for our loved ones, baking delicious treats, and beautifully decorating our homes. 


But don’t forget the seasonal aromas of fresh-cut evergreens!  Therein lies a favorite memory for many in going out to get a Christmas tree from a tree farm, meandering between the rows to find the right one as fresh snowflakes flutter down, or perhaps simply picking out a favorite from among pre-cut trees on a seasonal lot, the latter option often being pretty much all that’s available to our city friends. 


Decorating the family Christmas tree brings such excitement to a child!  Their eyes sparkle, reflecting the lights and tinsel that shine and shimmer, while the fancy decorations bring special memories to mind from year to year.  The first Christmas after Ed and I were married, we cut down a small tree in the woods to decorate in our trailer; otherwise, faux trees were usually the norm as our kids grew up to save the disposable expense every year.  Now, I simply set up the 2-foot ceramic tree made for my mother-in-law decades ago, which she graciously gifted to me before her passing.


Until this research, I never knew that the evergreen tree is said to represent strength, perhaps strength to resist temptations or to remain strong in the harshest of times.  We often consider it a symbol of our Christian faith, a reminder of Christ’s birth and everlasting life, but it has also been an ancient symbol of  wisdom and longevity.  President John F. Kennedy even referred to the durable evergreen as a symbol of character by saying, “Only in winter can you tell which trees are truly green.  Only when the winds of adversity blow can you tell whether an individual or a country has courage and steadfastness.”  (The Historic Christmas Tree Ship, pg.276)


It seems Christmas trees became popular thanks to England’s Queen Victoria in the mid-19th century.  Yet, it was in 16th century Germany where many believe the tradition began of setting up an evergreen in the house for Christmas.  Martin Luther, credited with starting the Protestant Reformation in 1517, is thought to have begun putting lit candles onto his family’s tree which were held in place by wires.  This bright tradition was based on his seeing stars twinkling amongst the evergreens as he walked outdoors mulling over a sermon.  The Germans also added edible decorations to the branches, like aromatic gingerbread.  German glassmakers began creating unique glass tree ornaments, a tradition carried forward through the centuries.  In 1605, an unknown German left a written record of their decorations: "At Christmas they set up fir trees in the parlours of Strasbourg and hang thereon roses cut out of many-colored paper, apples, wafers, gold foil, sweets, etc."  As time went on, figurines of Baby Jesus were put at the top of the tree.  Later, an angel was often displayed as a topper to remind us of the one who had first informed the shepherds about Baby Jesus’ birth, or a star was gently set on the top branch in honor of the bright star which led the Wise Men to the young child.


In England, Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert of Germany, apparently set up and decorated their first family Christmas tree in 1841 inside Windsor Castle.  Young and beloved by everyone, whatever Queen Victoria wore or did often became the latest fad, like wearing the first white wedding gown for her marriage in February 1840.  Thus, she and her husband are credited with starting the very popular Christmas tree tradition.  An 1848 drawing of “The Queen’s Christmas tree at Windsor Castle” in the Illustrated London News eventually found its way to America, republished in “ Godey's Lady's Book ” at Philadelphia in December 1850.  However, historical curators have established it was actually Queen Charlotte, the wife of King George III, who began the British tradition of setting up Christmas trees with “the first known English tree at the Queen’s Lodge, Windsor in December 1800.”  Simply put, Queen Charlotte didn’t have the effervescent media giving profuse public praise to her every move that we would remember her effort.


Lit candles on Christmas trees created a beautiful illuminating star effect.  Unfortunately, they were also the cause of many fires.  What a promising change when inventor Thomas Edison hung up his safer electric lights in his office in 1880.  Two years later his colleague, Edward Johnson, strung up red, white and blue bulbs for use on his tree at home.  By 1890, an Edison Company brochure offered Christmas tree lighting services.  Only a few years later, President Grover Cleveland became the first president to decorate the White House Christmas tree with lights in 1895.  But, not until 1923, did President Calvin Coolidge set up the first National Christmas Tree on the White House front lawn. 


The popularity of Christmas trees make them highly desirable wherever you live.  Along with the beauty of candles or lightbulbs, various types of homemade decorations have been strung on the tree, including popcorn, cranberries, and fancy ornaments from paper to glass.  To serve their many customers, trees were brought to the cities by traditional means of delivery via teamsters with horse-drawn wagons and the popular steam locomotive.  Of especial interest among certain waiting city clientele, though, were the roughly 60 Christmas tree schooners which plied Lake Michigan between 1868 and 1914.  They were among the nearly 2000 or so beautiful three-masted schooners carrying cargo like tractor trailers on today’s highways.  Sailing south from northern Lake Michigan with loads of evergreens in late November, these hardy mariners risked their lives despite stormy weather to bring great joy to their customers.  Far from summer’s calm, late season sailing often became a ride on roiling and dangerous waters described as “hellish death traps [in] violent hurricane-force storms.”


Many of us readily recall Gordon Lightfoot’s song, “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald”, a haunting tale of loss on Lake Superior on November 10, 1975 – “…The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down, of the big lake they called 'Gitche Gumee'.  The lake, it is said, never gives up her dead, when the gales of November come early…”  This last phrase was oft quoted by long-forgotten mariners on the Great Lakes who knew stormy tragedy; and, I’m sure, are among the fears of those who ply the late-season waters even now.  Yet, not many of us today know about the tragic loss of the three-masted schooner, “Rouse Simmons”, the famed and fabled Christmas Tree Ship.


Born after the American Civil War’s conclusion in 1865, Capt. Herman Schuenemann, the son of German immigrants, knew Lake Michigan like the back of his hand.  He’d been sailing since his youth.  He knew how storms could blow up in an instant, causing havoc with sailing vessels, just as he knew about storms which took ships down to their dark and bitter-cold watery graves.  After all, he lost his brother, August, in the severe gale of November 9-10, 1898.  His ship, “the two-masted S. Thal”, also held Christmas trees bound for Chicago when she sank in a violent storm. 


Loyal to the good people of Chicago, Capt. Herman Schuenemann faithfully brought in his schooner loaded with Christmas trees every year.  While not the only Christmas tree ship on the Great Lakes, the good captain with his evergreen cargo was extremely popular at the Clark Street Dock of Chicago.  The annual arrival of Capt. Santa was made more popular by the reciprocal love of his many friends and neighbors.  He couldn’t think of disappointing the faithful who hoped to buy his trees for their homes, nor the poor families, orphanages, and churches which welcomed his free gift of a tree.  It simply gave him great pleasure to sail into the Chicago harbor with his cargo of evergreen joy.  


Yet, some would later claim Schuenemann had overloaded his schooner that year, making her top heavy.  At least one sailor, possibly several, refused to get on board when it was claimed rats were seen deserting while she was docked.  Sailors can be a superstitious lot… still, it’s long been known by old sea hands that if rats desert a ship, they know something’s amiss in what the inexperienced or unconcerned observer may overlook. 


Even so, Capt. Schuenemann set sail on a nearly 300-mile journey from Thompson’s Pier at Manistique, Michigan the week before Thanksgiving… November 22, 1912, a Friday, another bad omen.  To the old mariners, you never set sail on a Friday… just past midnight into Saturday, but never on Friday.  Knowing a storm was brewin’, Schuenemann wanted to get ahead of it, ignoring advice from friends in the Northwoods of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.  “The people of Chicago have to have their trees for Christmas.”  (See film clip of Classicsailboats.org, “Herman Schuenemann, Captain Santa”)


In the captain’s defense, though, even the official weather forecast on the day he sailed was not one that would have given rise to grave concern.  “Washington, D.C., November 22, 1912 – For Wisconsin: Local rains or snow Saturday; colder at night; variable winds becoming northwest and brisk; Sunday fair.  For Upper Michigan: Local snow or rains Saturday; variable winds, becoming northwest and west and brisk; Sunday fair.  This would not be the kind of weather which a recreational yachtsman would relish, but it was hardly cause to stop the merchantmen.”  (“Anchor News”, publication of the Wisconsin Maritime Museum, January/February 1990, by Fred Neuschel; p. 87, Pennington.)


And so, undeterred, Schuenemann sailed out into the lake with his cargo of roughly 5000 trees… until the 50-60+ mph winds caught up with him.  The gale-force winds laden with snow and ice took their toll on the hardy old ship built 44 years earlier.  She was seen by a steamer about 2 p.m. on November 23, 1912, the car ferry “Ann Arbor No.5.”  Noted to be riding low and listing badly, the captain of “Ann Arbor No.5” later claimed the “Simmons” was not running distress signals.  He didn’t attempt to get closer to offer aid thinking she could yet make it safely to shore, later taking much blame for his decision. 


Less than two hours after that siting, however, the U.S. Lifesaving Station had received notice and sent a rescue motorboat out from Two-Rivers, Wisconsin during the fierce storm to find the “Simmons”.  The rescuers briefly saw her riding low and listing with distress flags flying, reporting that “…she was completely iced over, with most of her rigging and sails tattered or gone.”  As they drew within an eighth of a mile of the schooner, a sudden snow squall overwhelmed and “blinded them.  By the time the squall blew itself out, the ‘Rouse Simmons’ was gone… There was no Christmas Tree Ship, no Captain Santa, and no trees for many needy families’”. (p.135, Pennington, quoting U.S. Coast Guard Magazine, Dec 2000)


The late-season cold and stormy Great Lakes does not bring a pleasure sail.  High winds angrily whip the lake into a mountainous frenzy, sending waves crashing over ship decks.  The captain and his crew would fight the elements as their ship was tossed to and fro.  Though all hands knew what to do in riding out such storms, surely they must have also realized they could go down at any moment.  Realistically, there was only so much they could do.  “Freezing temperatures would sheet rigging, sails and spars with heavy coats of ice.  The accumulating weight of ice on the ship could ominously drag her deeper into the water, changing the center of gravity and making her prone to a sudden roll, from which she would never recover.  Running any cargo on the old schooners was especially dangerous in the late season.”  (“Went Missing II”, Frederick Stonehouse, Copyright 1984; pg.87, Pennington)


Actually, four ships with all hands sank in that horrendous storm of 1912 – “South Shore,” “Three Sisters,” “Two Brothers,” and the “Rouse Simmons.”  Having lost sight of the “Simmons” despite an extensive search which risked their own lives, the unsuccessful Two Rivers Point men returned to the rescue house.  When the “Rouse Simmons” failed to appear at any dock after ten days had passed, let alone her destination of Chicago’s Clark Street dock, it was determined that she must have gone to the bottom of Lake Michigan.  She was believed to have sunk on November 23, 1912, possibly somewhere between the Two Rivers Point light and Kewaunee along the Wisconsin shore.  Yet, there were numerous conflicting reports of sightings and stories of her final hours, including supposed sightings that she had braved the storm just fine, confusion on the number of crew aboard, and even confusion as to why she had gone down.


For years afterwards, evergreen trees and their remnants, including a few ship artifacts and skulls, were caught up in numerous fishing nets.  Not until October 30, 1971, however, did a diver, Kent Bellrichard, accidentally discover the “Rouse Simmons.”  While searching for another ship with his sonar, he dove down into the depths to investigate his target at the bottom.  Quite sure he had found the “Rouse Simmons”, Bellrichard returned a week later for another dive.  This time, with better lighting, he found the schooner’s name and hundreds of Christmas trees in her hold, some tucked deep inside with needles still intact.  (pg. 232-237, Pennington) 


Many more years passed before a fishing trawler netted a captain’s wheel in 1999.  Determined to be from the “Rouse Simmons” by the year 1868 etched into the wheel’s metal, it was found in an area dubbed the ship graveyard for the many ships which have sunk there in storms over the numerous past decades.  It is now believed the “Simmons” did not break apart from age as had been initially surmised.  With her wheel found a mile and a half north of where the schooner rested on the bottom, and noting the specific type of damage to the wheel, there seemed to be sufficient evidence as to why the good Capt. Schuenemann was unable to bring her safely in to shore.  Judging from the damage to the wheel, it most likely broke off and sank when the massive mizzenmast driver boom, which supported the ship’s main sails, broke loose.  Without the vital wheel to guide the ship’s direction, and with her larger-than-usual load of evergreens, being heavily coated with ice, her sails in tatters from gale-force winds, riding low and listing badly, she all too quickly sank below the surface with a total loss of life in the worst storm folks of that day could remember ever hitting their great lake.  (pg. 214-215, Pennington)


Despite the family’s loss, the captain’s wife, Barbara, was determined to continue her husband’s tradition.  She and her daughters, Elsie, and twins Pearl and Hazel, began their annual trek in 1913 to the Northwoods of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.  They cut down and loaded a schooner full of Christmas trees for the good folks of Chicago, sending more by train.  Over time, fewer schooners brought Christmas trees into ports as the safer railroads took over.  But, for now, Elsie, age 20, the Captain’s oldest daughter, a very capable trained mariner under her father’s tutelage, sailed the lake on a new Christmas Tree Ship to bring home the greens. Bringing shiploads of trees and green boughs to Chicago’s Clark Street dock at least until 1925 before sending all evergreens by rail, Barbara and her three daughters continued to bring the joy of the season to town just as the good Captain Santa had done.  The family was beloved for their kindness and generosity in many ways, but especially during their own time of deepest grief when they thought of others.


Yet, one little girl clearly remembered waiting for Capt. Scheunemann’s Christmas Tree Ship to sail into the Chicago harbor back in 1912.  At age 5, Ruthie Erickson held her father’s hand as they waited at the dock for hours only to have her father finally say, “Ruthie, everybody is gone.  It’s cold.  The wind is blowing.  We should go home now.”  “But Daddy,” she replied, “it isn’t Christmas without a Christmas tree!”  (p.316, Pennington) 


Many years later, 83-year-old Ruth (Erickson) Flesvig attended a play in 1990 about the beloved Captain Santa and his Christmas Tree Ship.  As the play concluded, her presence unknown to anyone, the real “little Ruthie” walked up onto the stage to say that she had been there at the docks waiting and waiting for the good captain and his trees.  Portraying Capt. Scheunemann was Capt. Dave Truitt, former Chairman of the Christmas Ship Committee who, in conjunction with the U.S. Coast Guard, helped restore the annual Christmas Tree Ship event in 2000.  (p.304-305, Pennington).  With tears in his eyes and everyone else’s, Capt. Truitt took one of the Christmas trees on stage and handed it to Ruth.  With these words, he spoke for Capt. Scheunemann by saying, “I couldn’t give you a Christmas tree in 1912 when you were five because of reasons you now know, but I give this tree to you today.  Merry Christmas, Ruthie!” (p.316-137, Pennington)  


Donating free trees to Chicago’s needy, the U.S. Coast Guard’s annual Christmas Tree Ship continues Capt. Schuenemann’s beloved tradition.  Since 2000, the U. S. Coast Guard Cutter Mackinaw, an imposing icebreaker, arrives at Grand Avenue’s Navy Pier bearing a banner proclaiming her “Chicago’s Christmas Ship”.  As large crowds gather, a memorial ceremony pays tribute to the “Rouse Simmons,” the lives lost when she sank, and others in the merchant marine trade who have lost their lives over the decades on Lake Michigan.  Then, a large number of volunteers help deliver free Christmas trees to needy families throughout the city of Chicago in honor of Capt. Santa, their dear Capt. Herman Schuenemann.


As author Rochelle Pennington concluded, “Captain Herman Schuenemann touched the lives of people he would never know, and the volunteers of Chicago’s Christmas Ship are doing the same… dispelling some of the darkness in this ‘weary world’ that there may be rejoicing in The Season of Miracles…  [For] the strength of humanity lies herein:  in the willingness for each of us to leave the walls of our own hearts, and our own lives, and connect with the hearts and lives of others.  A Babe born in Bethlehem told us so.  The Life born in the hay had come to say, ‘Feed the hungry, clothe the naked, serve one another in love, and share.  And do unto others, for it is more blessed to give than it is to receive.” (p.317, Pennington)


Merry Christmas and blessings to all!


Many thanks to a friend, Will Van Dorp, aka Tugster, for the research tip about Captain Santa and his ship of evergreens, the “Rouse Simmons.”  Van Dorp traverses the Erie Canal and Great Lakes as an onboard lecturer for Blount Small Ship Cruises.




  1. Rochelle Pennington books

  2. Legend of the Christmas Tree Ship (Northern Wilds Magazine, Dec-Jan 2011)

  3. Winter Christmas Tree

  4. 100-year anniversary of the sinking of the Christmas tree ship

  5. Brief film clip from “Herman Schuenemann, Captain Santa”, ClassicSailboats.org


    Through interstate library loan: 

  6. “The Historic Christmas Tree Ship, A True Story of Faith, Hope and Love,” by Rochelle Pennington, 2004, published by Pathways Press.

  7. “Lives and Legends of the Christmas Tree Ships” by Fred Neuschel.

Linda Roorda

Happy Thanksgiving!

Fall is when I tend to reflect on a year of many blessings as we look forward to celebrating Thanksgiving and remembering the first celebration of thanks just a few centuries ago.  On Thanksgiving Day, we realize once again that we have so much to be thankful for.  God has blessed us all in so many ways, yet we often (me included) tend to take much in life for granted.  And I cringe every time I hear this special day called Turkey Day, instead preferring to think that deep within each of us is a heart of thanksgiving for all the blessings showered upon us each and every day.


As a nation, we treasure the story of the Pilgrims’ first Thanksgiving celebration at Plimouth Colony in 1621.   (The Pilgrims of Plimouth are not to be confused with the Puritans who settled the Boston area; they are each of different religious backgrounds.)  The original Mayflower passengers numbered 102, with about 50 crew members, when they set sail for the intended destination of the Virginia Colony.  Blown northward off course, they arrived in 1620 to a barren landscape amidst cold and bitter November winds and snows.  


These hardy souls struggled to survive as the ravages of disease took a toll on board ship where they wintered.  Only 53 passengers and half the crew remained alive in the spring.  This left a straggling group of humanity to emerge from winter’s stark bleakness to face the early days of spring.  But, the days were bright with hope and promise as the warming sun nudged green buds alive on plants and trees.  They had survived!  And, with God’s help, they were determined to succeed in their endeavor to settle this new land.


Building huts within the protection of a fort and its cannon, they moved from the hold of the ship to life on shore.  They learned to grow vegetables and hunt wild game and fish.  Native Americans who had befriended them were of great assistance in teaching the best methods for growing their gardens, and hunting and fishing.  At the end of harvest in October 1621, a feast was held for three days, traditionally considered the first Thanksgiving.  From records kept, 53 Pilgrims and 90 Native Americans attended this great feast.


By 1623, their failed communal farming effort had been given over to the more productive privatized individual family farming.  With an abundant harvest following a drought and subsequent beneficial rains, Gov. William Bradford proclaimed a day of thanksgiving that same year:  “Inasmuch as the great Father has given us this year an abundant harvest of Indian corn, wheat, beans, squashes, and garden vegetables, and has made the forest to abound with game and the sea with fish and clams, and inasmuch as He has protected us from the ravages of the savages, has spared us from pestilence and disease, has granted us freedom to worship God according to the dictates of our own conscience; now, I, your magistrate, do proclaim that all ye Pilgrims, with your wives and little ones, do gather at ye meeting house, on ye hill, between the hours of 9 and 12 in the day time, on Thursday, November ye 29th of the year of our Lord one thousand six hundred and twenty-three, and the third year since ye Pilgrims landed on ye Pilgrim Rock, there to listen to ye pastor, and render thanksgiving to ye Almighty God for all His blessings.”


The Pilgrims’ annual tradition was followed in 1630 by the Puritans’ first celebration, in 1639 by settlers of Connecticut, and in 1644 among the Dutch of New Netherlands.  Each group also set aside an annual day of thanksgiving in future years. 


By the 18th century, various colonies designated a day of thanksgiving for military victories or bountiful crops.  In December 1777, a national day of thanksgiving within all thirteen colonies was declared and set aside by General George Washington after British General Burgoyne surrendered at Saratoga.  On October 3, 1789, President Washington set aside the first Thanksgiving Day, and proclaimed such a day again in 1795.  Since then, a national day of thanksgiving was proclaimed by future presidents, but not necessarily annually.  It was President Abraham Lincoln who established a national Thanksgiving Day to be held on the last Thursday of November 1863.  Since then, Thanksgiving has been observed annually.  However, change again took place in 1941 when President Franklin Roosevelt set the fourth Thursday of each November as the official date, and there it has remained.


What foods were on the menu for the first Thanksgiving Day feast in 1621?  From writings kept, the Wampanoag Native Americans killed five deer.  The colonists shot wild fowl – likely geese, ducks and turkey.  Indian corn was used since what we know as field and sweet corn were not yet available.  Jennifer Monac, spokesperson for the living-history museum at Plimouth Plantation, has said they “likely supplemented their venison and birds with fish, lobster, clams, nuts, and wheat flour, as well as vegetables such as pumpkin (not in pie), squash, carrots and peas.”  However, what we consider traditional foods for our Thanksgiving dinner (mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, sweet corn, cranberry sauce, stuffing and pumpkin pie) were not found on their table – these foods had not even been introduced into their diet yet!


What sets this day apart for you and your family?  What makes your heart thankful?  What special memories or traditions of Thanksgiving Day do you share with family and friends?  I’d love to hear your memories!


Thanksgiving has always been a family day for us, whether during my childhood or with my husband and our children.  When I was a small child, my dad had farm chores; but, we always attended a morning worship service.  In my late teens, and no longer on the farm, and no worship service at our church, he often took us hunting.  For my husband, Ed, every holiday was wrapped in never-ending milking and barn chores, continuing after we married.


I especially enjoyed the big dinners after church at my dad’s parents’ home in Clifton, New Jersey in my early teens.  With her Dutch accent, my grandmother always welcomed us at the door with her cheery “Hello, Dear!”  My grandfather, a general contractor, had fully shed his accent, though they both spoke Dutch when we grandkids were not to know the content of their conversation!  And I well remember their food-laden table, surrounded by their three children and spouses, and all of us grandchildren.


Thanksgiving Day also brings to mind the quintessential painting by Norman Rockwell of the family gathered around the table - Grandma setting down the large platter of turkey, eagerly awaiting Grandpa’s carving.  I began a fun tradition of naming our birds either Sir Thomas or Henrietta, depending on size.


Growing up, our children always enjoyed watching the Thanksgiving Day parades.  I often had to work this holiday years ago, and looked forward to coming home to the delicious aroma of turkey dinner begun by my husband and children.  Now, with our two remaining children grown and married, and each with children of their own, they celebrate with their respective spouse’s family.  Ed and I celebrate with a small quiet dinner.  And then, we eagerly anticipate Christmas and the return of our family for a few days.


Thanksgiving Day also never fails to remind us of those who have left behind an empty chair and a hole in our hearts – our oldest daughter, both my husband’s parents, and my dad and step-mother.  Yet, sweet memories of their love cast a warm glow over all. 


With thankful hearts for the many blessings God has so generously bestowed on each of us, I wish you a very Happy Thanksgiving Day!

Linda Roorda

As summer’s warmth gives way to the cooler days of fall, our thoughts turn to cold-weather projects, and that of storing food for the coming winter.  Without that process, our ancestors would be hard pressed to get through the bitter cold months, unless, of course, you could afford to purchase all your food supplies at the local general store. 


Once upon a time, most families cultivated large vegetable gardens and raised a barnyard menagerie to put food by for the coming winter – a vital necessity.  How they accomplished it without our modern water-bath and pressure canners, and freezers, that we and our mother’s generation have used amazes me. 


In 2003, I was concluding my empty-nest project of researching and writing an extensive manuscript which documented every family line of my mother’s parents back to the early 17th century settlers of New Netherlands.  And that was using only the pathetically slow dial-up internet for online research!  In asking for input from relatives on their memories of our grandparents, my aunt, Shirley (Tillapaugh) Van Duesen, shared how much she enjoyed working alongside her dad.  Her ties to her father don’t surprise me.  While growing up, I enjoyed time spent working with my dad, too, and that naturally evolved into enjoying time spent working with my husband on the farm and around our property.


But, I found it especially interesting that, of all things my aunt chose to write about, she told me about fall butchering time on the farm.  I’m so glad she did, though, because in many ways what she wrote about is a lost skill.  Oh sure, we still have butcher shops in some rural communities, but gone are the days of farm and backyard butchering where neighbors helped each other with these chores.


With permission granted by my cousin, Doug, to share his mother’s words, Aunt Shirley wrote, “What I remember the most was hog butchering time which was sometime in November, I believe.  It was a community project, usually two or three days.  Everyone who had pigs to butcher helped in the process, and they were hung in my father’s garage to cool overnight or until they were ready to be cut up.  Each one took their own [pig] home to process from that point on.  I always enjoyed helping cut ours up – to cut and skin the rind (or hide) off the fat, cut fat off the meat, grind and render it down into lard for cooking, cut meat into roasts, pork chops, tenderloin, and grind other remaining meat and scraps for sausage.  My father always cut and shaped the hams, then put them in large tubs with a salt brine to cure for several weeks.  Then he would take them out and smoke them in the smokehouse.  He would do the same with the sausage after grinding and stuffing it into the casings, and then shape that into links.  The hams were then put into large brown bags and hung in the cellar, and used as needed – and the same for the sausage.”


Her description gives us a great overall picture of the process.  Further details on the butchering process can be found in the online Backwoods Home Magazine, Issue No. 23 from September/October 1993, with an appropriate article, “Slaughtering and Butchering,” by Dynah Geissal.  I enjoyed this very informative article in which Geissal gives excellent directions for the homesteader in butchering a variety of home-grown animals raised specifically for the freezer.  She describes how to cut the meat into appropriate sections, with photos to provide guiding details.  She even includes recipes for sausage, scrapple and other delicious fare.  


Raised on a dairy farm, my husband was present twice when his father and uncles butchered cows on the farm.  Like my aunt wrote, Ed agreed that the best time to butcher is in the fall, typically November, because it’s cold enough to hang the carcass to avoid spoilage.  When cows were shipped to the butcher shop, he also said it was important to keep the animal as calm as possible before slaughter.  This helped keep the meat from becoming tough and unsavory. 


On a smaller scale in backyard processing, my sister and I were the official assistants when it was time to dispatch designated unproductive chickens or specific meat birds to the freezer.  My father was in charge of swinging the axe on the chopping block.  And for those who have only heard the expression about someone running around like a chicken with their head cut off – let me assure you, it’s accurate!  After filling a 5-gallon bucket with boiling water, we sisters were given the honor of dunking and plucking.  With twine around their feet, we hung the scalded chickens from a nail in a barn beam and plucked those feathers clean off as best we could. 


My mother was in charge of dressing the hens back in the kitchen.  Dressing is the more delicate term to describe the process of gutting and cleaning the bird.  I still vividly recall my mother showing us shell-less eggs from inside one of the hens – in descending sizes from the current large to tiny!  I was utterly fascinated!  I should perhaps mention at this point that once upon a time I had thoughts of becoming a veterinarian.  As science and math were not among my strong points, that dream soon fell by the wayside.


We also raised pigs, three at a time.  And now I must confess that I had a tremendous fear of our cute little piglets simply from their noise and stench!  So, I refused to care for them, thus putting my younger brothers in charge of the feeding and cleaning of little piglets that grew into large hogs – really a good responsibility for my energetic brothers!  My dad knew when they’d reached sufficient poundage and sent them off to the butcher shop to become delicious pork in the freezer for us and our city relatives. 


Our horse, chickens, ducks and one goose (appropriately named “Honk” by my toddler brother) were my charges with the Muscovy ducks providing entertainment.  Digging a hole in the fenced-in chicken run, we sank a square galvanized tub for their bathing delight, and they regularly enjoyed “swim” time. 


Only one duck decided to set on about a dozen eggs.  Four hatched properly and soon waddled behind their Mama to explore the great outdoors.  Feeling sorry for the fifth duckling who was late emerging from its shell, this writer took it upon herself to assist the poor little thing.  Unbeknownst to her at the time (she forgot to study), fowl do not need, nor do they desire, our assistance to hatch from their shell.  They have a “tooth” on their beak which assists them quite well; but, they also must do their own hatching in order to survive.  So, you guessed it – this little duckling did not live long once it had been helped out of its shell. 


Then, a few days later, this caretaker came home from school and eagerly went out to care for her critters only to sadly discover one little duckling had drowned in the 2-inch deep water dish in their pen.  That left three cute and fuzzy ducklings to follow the adults as they grew like weeds.  And, though a bit more greasy than chicken, they were absolutely delicious when my mother roasted them! (Yes, that was their intended purpose.)


During the years that I stayed home to raise our children while my husband farmed with his dad, I grew a large garden every summer, canning and freezing a year’s worth of vegetables and fruit.  It sure helped save on grocery bills, wishing I had the time and energy to do it now, but cannot with working full time elsewhere.  It was only natural I delved into this venture since my parents raised a large garden every year for as long as I can remember, as did both sets of grandparents.  But, as children, when we were sent out to weed our garden, my sister and I opted instead to run and play between the rows!  Truth be told, we even tossed some of the green beans under the lilac bushes when we decided we were tired of the chore of snapping them.  However, when they were my own gardens with food to be put up for the coming winter, I thoroughly enjoyed every aspect of the process.


But, as mentioned above, I’ve often wondered how our ancestors put their veggies up.  They didn’t have the benefit of a freezer, nor could they efficiently use water-bath jar canning let alone the fine tunings of a high-pressure cooker/canner like I had available. 


In looking for books to study this subject, I recalled my bookshelf held my mother’s, “Putting Food By – The No.1 book about all the safe ways to preserve food.”  It’s a very useful book for beginners as it discusses all the prerequisites to canning and freezing vegetables and meats, including explanations of the old-fashioned methods our ancestors used to put up their food.


Another excellent resource obtained through Spencer’s interlibrary loan system was “The Little House Cookbook, Frontier Foods from Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Classic Stories” by Barbara M. Walker.  What a genuine treasure this book is as Ms. Walker expands on Wilder’s descriptions of the foods they ate by explaining how their food was prepared with innumerable appropriate recipes.


I thought you might enjoy a scrumptious old-fashioned recipe from Laura Ingalls Wilder’s day.  A special dessert which Almanzo enjoyed as a child was Birds’-Nest Pudding in Wilder’s book, “Farmer Boy.”  Barbara M. Walker includes a recipe in her book for this standard dessert of long ago with the apples “baked…in a custard, biscuit dough, or pie pastry.”  This is just one of many old-fashioned recipes found in Walker’s “The Little House Cookbook.”

“For six servings you will need:

Butter, ½ teaspoon

Tart apples, 6 (about 2 pounds)

Brown sugar, 1 cup

Ground nutmeg, ½ teaspoon

Eggs, 3

Homogenized milk, 1 cup

Maple flavoring, 1 teaspoon

Flour, 1 cup

Cream of tartar, 1 teaspoon

Baking powder, ½ teaspoon

Salt, ½ teaspoon

Powdered sugar, ½ cup

Heavy cream, 1 pint

Baking dish:  2 quart

Butter the baking dish.  Peel and core the apples and place them in the dish.  Fill the holes with brown sugar, pressing slightly, and sprinkle half the nutmeg on top.  Place in preheated 350-degree oven to start baking while you prepare the batter.

Separate the eggs, putting yolks in a 2-quart bowl and whites on a 12-inch platter.  Beat whites with a fork or whisk until they don’t slip from the tilted platter.  Beat the yolks until they change color; stir in milk and maple flavoring.  In a 1-quart bowl, mix flour, cream of tartar, baking powder, salt and remaining brown sugar.  Stir this mixture quickly into the liquid.  Fold the egg whites into this thin batter.

Pour the batter evenly over and around the partially cooked upright apples, returning the dish to the oven, baking until the crust has browned, another 45 minutes to an hour.

While the pudding bakes, stir the powdered sugar and remaining nutmeg into a pitcher of heavy cream.  Take the baked pudding out of the oven and directly to the table before it ‘falls.’  Turn each serving onto a plate so the apple is ‘nested in the fluffy crust.’  Pass the pitcher of sweetened cream.”  (Walker, pp.126-127)


A classic from the 19th century, Housekeeper and Healthkeeper (available only online, not through interlibrary loan) by Catherine E. Beecher (sister of Harriet Beecher Stowe) discusses virtually every conceivable household dilemma for the housewife of the late 19th century.  Beecher’s own foreword is written to “My Dear Friends, - This volume embraces…many valuable portions of my other works on Domestic Economy…  It is designed to be a complete encyclopedia of all that relates to a woman’s duties as housekeeper, wife, mother, and nurse.”  Beecher includes five hundred recipes of which I perused a few.  She is completely thorough in all of her explanations to assist the housewife who often entered her new profession without foundational training.  I was impressed by Beecher’s ability to address every possible home situation from cooking and putting food by, to cleaning and caring for the sick family.  


In our ancestors’ time a few hundred years ago, even through the turn of the 19th century, most rural families had a milch (milk) cow or two.  Not only was the family’s delicious milk and cream supplied by their very own favorite pet cow, but Bossy’s milk also provided them the ability to make butter, cheese and ice cream.  Things just didn’t get any better than that!  And, extras could always be sold or bartered for other necessities not readily available or too expensive at the general mercantile.


Without electricity, one either had an ice house to keep foods cold, a storage area in the cellar, or a springhouse.  Root cellars were a popular place to store vegetables below the frost line.  Attics were often used to store food during the winter including hams, pumpkins, squashes, onions, and dried vegetables.  Perhaps the home had a storage shed just outside the back door.  Here, the family could conveniently store meat in a “natural freezer” during the winter months (though I’ve wondered about wild critters enjoying the free cache), along with stacked firewood, other supplies, and kettleware. 


Then again, many homes had a large pantry just off the kitchen.  I remember well my Grandma Laura Tillapaugh’s huge pantry with shelves on all sides and a door to the cellar, which I never did get to explore.  It was in this pantry that she kept her big tin of large scrumptious molasses cookies that we could help ourselves to when she gave approval.  Try as I might, I was never able to duplicate her delicious cookies though!


My mother shared with me that their cellar held crates of apples and potatoes and other root vegetables. Not a root cellar per se`, my mom said that what was stored in crates kept quite well through the winter.  She also recalls her mother did use both pressure and waterbath canners for fruits and vegetables, along with canning pickled tongue and other meats at butchering time.  As my Aunt Shirley wrote about butchering time, their meat was put into a salt brine and stored in large wooden barrels or the old pottery crocks.  This process meant keeping the meat well covered by brine, held below the surface by a heavy weight.  Smoking was another great way to cure and preserve the meat to prevent spoilage and bacteria growth during storage over the long winter. 


Brine, made of sugar, salt, saltpeter or sodium nitrate, and mixed with water, covered and cured meats placed in large crocks.  After the curing time of up to two months, the meat was typically smoked and then hung in the attic or cellar.  Or, you could fry the meat, place it in a crock, covering it with a layer of lard, then a layer of meat covered by lard until the crock was full.  The homemaker had only to dig out the amount of meat needed for a meal and reheat it.  These ever-handy crocks preserved other foods such as butter, pickles, sauerkraut, and even vegetables.  Apple cider was fermented to make hard cider, often a staple on the old farms.  Lard or paraffin was used to seal a crock’s contents, keeping out contaminants causing spoilage.  


Before modern conveniences came along, root vegetables were typically stored in the cellar, or root cellar – especially potatoes, turnips, onions, beets, cabbages, carrots and even apples.  Areas that are cool, dark and dry help keep vegetables from sprouting, and slow any spoilage that might begin.  It was also a wise idea to store apples, potatoes and cabbages apart from each other and other produce so their odors/flavors did not spoil each other.  It was also a must to keep an eye on everything for early signs of spoilage.  Vegetables and certain fruits being stored could be wrapped individually in paper, or kept in baskets covered in sand, soil or dry leaves. 


Reading the requirements in “Putting Food By,” we need to know a lot about the root cellar process that, on the surface, seems like such a simple idea – but it’s really not.  There are specific temperature and dryness or moisture requirements for the various vegetables and fruits to prevent mold and spoilage.


I recall that in the early 1980s, I had an abundance of good-sized green tomatoes.  After picking them, my dad and step-mother helped as we lay them out on the basement floor on newspaper to ripen, storing the greenest in a bushel basket with each one wrapped in newspaper.  They kept for a good while out in the garage where it was cold but not freezing.


Another popular method was to dry fruits and vegetables, often simply by drying them in the sun.  Meat dried in this manner is called jerky.  If the home had a cookstove, drying could be accomplished on trays in the oven, or the vegetables and fruit could simply be put on strings and hung to dry in a warm area of the room.  The warm attic space near the chimney was another good place to dry food, using protection from dust and bugs.  Reconstitution by adding sufficient water for stewing was all it took to use these otherwise scarce foods during the cold and barren winter months.  Though they often lost some of the original flavor, dried veggies and fruits must have been a welcome addition to their diet during the cold winter months.  In the latter half of the 19th century, special driers with built-in furnaces became available on the market for home use in drying various fruits and vegetables.


When thinking about the types of food eaten by our ancestors on the frontier, we need to remember that their salty and fatty dishes were necessary for their diet considering their involvement in extensive physical labor.  And to this any modern farmer can attest as their own hard work all day in the barn or fields contributes to a rather hearty appetite – I do remember how much Ed ate without gaining weight!


Farmers and homesteaders had not only the typical farm chores to attend to in the hot summer and bitter cold winter, but they would hunt to supplement their meat supply, and put in a garden to reap the harvest of both vegetables and fruits.  If the homesteader did not have a ready supply of fruit on their own bushes and trees, searching the nearby forest often gave them a bounty of seasonal fruits and berries.  Yet, even in that venture, there was the ever-present danger of wild animals, especially bear.  The homesteaders’ hearty appetites and wide variety of unprocessed food allowed for a healthy diet which did not require today’s supplemental vitamins.


My mother shared her memory years ago of pouring maple syrup (or cooked molasses and brown sugar) over snow which Laura Ingalls and her siblings did to make a delicious candy.  (Not recommended nowadays with the pollutants in our snow.)  As a teen, I remember making ice cream the old-fashioned way with a hand-turned crank – nothing tasted better when it was ready!  And my sister and I attempted to make divinity, once – it wasn’t perfect, but it was delicious!  Now, a favorite of mine is to make brittle with cashews – with the key being a candy thermometer which neither my sister and I nor Laura Ingalls’ family had available years ago.


It required a lot of work on the part of every family member to hunt, raise and grow the family’s food, and then to put it up for the coming winter, year after year.  If they didn’t carefully follow the steps to properly preserve their food, a good deal of spoilage could and would occur due to various elements or critters.  And, at the time of which we write, the early 19th century, canning was not yet an available option for our homesteader.  Actually, the glass Mason canning jar with rubber ring and wire clasp was not available until 1858.  But then, of course, if you could afford it, you could simplify life and buy quality foods at the grocery or butcher shop in town to maintain a well-balanced diet throughout the unproductive winter months. 


All things considered, we really do have an easier way of life.  But, what satisfaction our ancestors must have felt in putting by their own food!  I sure did when canning and freezing the produce of our gardens years ago.



*The Little House Cookbook, Frontier Foods from Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Classic Stories, by Barbara M. Walker, Harper & Row, Publishers, New York, 1979.

*Putting Food By – The No.1 book about all the safe ways to preserve food, by Ruth Hertzberg, Beatrice Vaughan, and Janet Greene, The Stephen Greene Press, Brattleboro, VT, 1973.

*The Way We Ate, Pacific Northwest Cooking, 1843-1900, by Jacqueline B. Williams, Washington State University Press, Pullman, WA, 1996.


*Housekeeper and Healthkeeper, Containing five hundred recipes for economical and healthful cooking; also, many directions for securing health and happiness, approved by physicians of all classes; by Catherine E. Beecher, New York: Harper & Brothers, Publishers, 1873. 

Linda Roorda

Hiawatha Island… The name alone brings to mind a land of legends and visions from a long-ago era.  Did the legendary Hiawatha ever frequent its shores?  Not likely.  But, it is believed the Iroquois nation once used the island as part of their homeland.  Artifacts found in its soil from bygone eras have been donated to the collections at both Binghamton University and the Tioga County Historical Society museums. 


View on the Susquehanna (above Owego), New York. WH BARTLETT - 1840 - old print - antique print - vintage print - New York art prints

The Big or Great Island, as it’s been called, comprises 112 acres in a beautiful tranquil setting.  A few miles east of Owego proper, it’s surrounded on all sides by the Susquehanna River flowing west.  Once a bustling retreat for locals and tourists alike, it contained a beautiful three-story hotel and meandering sylvan paths with the island’s dock reached by steamboats throughout the summer months. 


Earliest records for the island note that Britain’s King George III issued a mandamus (a writ directing a lower court to perform a specific act) dated January 15, 1755, deeding land, including the island, to the Coxe family in exchange for their territory in Georgia, the Carolinas and the Bahama Islands.  By 1821, the Coxe family had surveyed and divided the land into small farms with the Big Island designated as lot no.120. 


Moving to Lounsberry in 1969, I did not pay much, if any, attention to Hiawatha Island during my high school years in Owego, NY.  However, about 15 years ago, I discovered a [supposed] ancestral tie that piqued my interest in the island’s history.  My earliest genealogical research found a McNeill family paper filed at both the Tioga County Historical Society in Owego and the Schoharie County Historical Society at the Old Stone Church in Schoharie, NY.  This paper claimed that a Ruth McNeil, b. 1782 in Weare, New Hampshire, was the daughter of my John C. and Hannah (Caldwell) McNeill of Weare, Londonderry and New Boston, New Hampshire.  Ruth was noted to have married Matthew Lamont(e).  (Note my specific use of one or two “L’s” in the McNeil versus McNeill name.)


This is where due diligence pays off in checking all genealogy sources yourself.  The person filing that family paper did not reply to my inquiry in 2002.  Digging deeper, I found and purchased a McNeil family history from the Montgomery County Historical Society in Fonda, NY simply to see if that family held clues to my own.  However, that historical writeup is about the family of John and Ruth McNeil of Vermont who lived in Fulton, NY, with that genealogy listing a daughter Ruth who the researcher was unable to trace further. 


From personal extensive research on my own McNeill family, it is proven that John C. McNeill and Hannah Caldwell married May 8, 1781, that their first daughter, Betsey, was born December 5, 1781, and that she was adopted by Hannah’s childless older sister, Elizabeth.  In checking late 19th century census records for Matthew and Ruth LaMonte’s children, they note their mother was born in NY, not NH.  With the above John and Ruth McNeil’s family history listing a child named Ruth of whom nothing more was known, I felt there was sufficient circumstantial evidence for Ruth (McNeil) Lamont to be their child rather than a daughter of my John C. and Hannah (Caldwell) McNeill.  Furthermore, John C.’s family did not contain the name of Ruth in any older or younger generations as does the Vermont McNeil family.  Of additional interest, my earliest ancestors and their descendants consistently spelled their name McNeill while John and Ruth’s descendants consistently used McNeil.


Matthew and Ruth LaMonte removed from Schoharie County to Owego, Tioga County, NY in the early to mid 1820s.  The second registered deed to the Big Island, dated June 23, 1830, is to Matthew and Marcus LaMonte. Matthew was the husband of Ruth above.  Their son Marcus had at least three children:  Abram H., b.1831 on the island, Susan Jane b. 1834 (as a teacher, one of her students at the Owego Academy was the young John D. Rockefeller), and Cyrenus M., b.1837.  Cyrenus purchased the Big Island in 1872 just before its commercialization commenced in 1874 with picnics and summer events. 


The earliest known birth on the Big Island was that of Lucinda (Bates) Lillie, born August 16, 1800.  It is also known that various squatters took up residence on the island, particularly when owners were absent, making good use of the fertile river-loam farmland. 


Another tie of note to the island is that of Ezra Seth Barden who was born in 1810 at Lee, Massachusetts.  In 1833 he brought his young bride, Catherine Elizabeth Jackson, to Owego where they set up their home on the Big Island.  She just happens to be a second cousin of U. S. President Andrew Jackson.


The LaMonte family had their main farm directly north of the island where Rt. 17C runs near Campville.  They retained a few acres on the island after selling the rest in 1831, selling that small balance of acreage in 1834.  From my previous research, the LaMonte family operated a ferry across the river to the island.  In 1840, with her five children, Mrs. William Avery Rockefeller (the former Eliza Davison) removed from Moravia, NY to Owego, renting a house on the LaMonte farm.  One of her sons, John Davison Rockefeller, Sr., 11 years old at the time, often worked for pennies a day on the LaMonte farm.  Born July 8, 1839 in Richford, NY, John D. Rockefeller, world-renowned founder of Standard Oil Company, went to the Court Street Owego Academy, was tutored by Susan Jane LaMonte at her home, and often kept in touch with her on his returns to Owego as an adult.  Another student of renown who taught at the Owego Academy was Benjamin F. Tracy, Secretary of the Navy under President Benjamin Harrison.


The former Owego Academy at 20 Court Street is an old brick building still very much in use, nicely remodeled, repainted, and well kept over the years.  It was in this Federal style building (built in 1827-28) where I began my secretarial career in 1972 as a high school senior.  I worked part time, then full time after graduating high school, for Lewis B. Parmerton, Esq., gaining valuable knowledge from his experienced secretary, Kathy.  My desk was at the second window to the left of the front door on the first floor, looking out on two tall buttonwood (sycamore) trees which are now gone.  The basement then housed the N.Y.S. Department of Motor Vehicles where I obtained my learner’s permit and driver’s license. 


I will also never forget the sale of a particular old building on Front Street along the river’s edge to Pat Hansen.  After all paperwork had been completed and signed, and Ms. Hansen had left, Mr. Parmerton stood in the office with us two secretaries, shaking his head, “I don’t know what she wants that old building for.”  Little did he, or Kathy and I, realize then, but Pat Hansen turned her building into the extremely successful store, “Hand of Man,” spurring on the revitalization and growth of Owego’s Front Street businesses which continues to this day!  I love poking around in the “Hand of Man,” enjoying the delicate and gorgeous one-of-a-kind gifts.


But, among the antiques in the Parmerton office was an oil painting of the Owego Academy, with two young sycamore/buttonwood saplings which stood in front of our office windows.  I cannot find a copy of this painting in an online search.  The building’s tin ceilings were high and ornate.  There were beautiful fireplaces, an old Seth Thomas pendulum clock, an 1850 map designating every road and building in Tioga County, and Mr. Parmerton’s office/library was lined with bookshelves filled to the high ceiling, rolling ladders needed to reach the upper shelves.  The floors were wooden, uneven and squeaky in places, with a beautiful dark wood banister going up the stairs to the second level.


In fact, taking the stairs to the upper floor, I had occasion to enter the office of two elderly attorneys, the Beck sisters. I remember Rowena Beck, the first woman lawyer in Tioga County. The sisters’ grandfather was Professor Joseph Raff who, in 1875, composed the Blue Tassel Quadrille for the start of a new season on the Great Island.  Of further interest, Sedore notes that Raff was the brother of Joachim Raff, an accomplished orchestral composer, who just happened to be “a personal friend of Franz Liszt and Hans von Bulow.”  (Sedore, p.23)  Small world indeed!  Little did I then know the history I was working amongst!


When speaking of the island’s early years, one must also include reference to Joseph Shaw DeWitt, or “Old Joe” as he was otherwise known.  Coming from Binghamton to Owego about 1841, he was an actor, fireman, businessman and restaurateur.  On the side, he made and sold cough drops in a box which looked much like the Smith Brothers box, along with cream candies, and beer.  He owned a restaurant on Lake Street, but it was at his hotel on Front Street in Owego which began the greatest period of Hiawatha Island’s history.  Here, on August 5, 1873, a number of businessmen met to form a stock company with the purpose of building a steamboat intended for trips on the Susquehanna River between Binghamton, NY and Towanda, PA.  They approached Cyrenus McNeil LaMonte, who had purchased the Great Island in 1872, and thus began the island’s “most flamboyant years.” (Sedore p.5) 


The Owego Steamboat Company had its first boat ready by the end of February 1874.  The “Owego” was 75 feet long, 26 feet wide, capable of carrying 200 passengers.  Unfortunately, she did not have the most auspicious start to her career.  Putting the “Owego” into the river with 20 men aboard on April 6th was the easy part.  All too soon, however, they realized her paddlewheels were too light and frequently simply stopped moving.  But, that was easy enough to rectify – a man lay down on top of each wheel house, pushing the paddle wheels with his hands to keep them working!  What a job that must’ve been!


Having finally gotten the “Owego” into deeper water, things only went downhill from there.  As they tried to bring her back to shore, someone misjudged and she stopped with a sudden thud on hitting the embankment.  This sent several of the men sprawling flat out on the deck.  Deciding to take the flatboat to shore (towed behind for emergency situations), the men got safely onto this small boat – only to find it couldn’t handle their weight, and it promptly sank.  With chagrin, their only option left was swimming to shore, likely glad it was the middle of the night with few fans around to observe the indignity of it all.


Sixteen days later, though, the “Owego” was steaming to Binghamton and back, and the Big Island was being cleared of brush where a dance hall and restaurant were to be built.  “Old Joe,” the first caterer, fed all picnickers who came to the island for its opening day on Wednesday, June 10, 1874.  Professor Raff’s cornet band provided entertainment on the “Owego”.  Ever the entrepreneur and entertainer, “Old Joe” was ready for customers wearing Indian feathers and war paint on his face, and dubbed his restaurant “Hiawatha’s Wigwam.”  Hiawatha Grove was the name for the eastern end of the island and of the train station on the opposite north shore (off Rt. 17C near Campville).  Soon, though, the Big Island began to be known by the name of Hiawatha Island thanks to the showmanship of everyone’s favorite businessman, “Old Joe.”


Over the ensuing nearly 20 years, the Hiawatha House hotel was built and eventually expanded to three stories with a dance hall, restaurant, and honeymoon suites, with its front balconies overlooking the river.  Gravel strolling paths were made, with small “arbors” built along the paths to sell confections, cigars and lemonade.  Games were played on the lawns of the island, and scull races were held on the river.  Clam bakes were also quite popular, as was the dancing held until the early morning hours, keeping the steamboat busy at the dock.  Many businesses and churches from local and numerous outlying communities soon found it a popular picnic destination spot over the years.


In 1875, a new and better dock was built.   It was 75 feet long with thirteen 16-foot-long piles driven to a depth of 10-1/2 feet.  Sedore comments that nine of these original piles are still visible when the river level is down.  This was another boom year for the island.  In September, the “Owego” was sold with plans in the works for a new steamboat, the “Lyman Truman,” bigger and better at 120 feet long.  She was launched March 9, 1876 from the riverbank just west of the Owego bridge, taking far longer to do so than expected.  She broke the ropes as she lurched forward, gliding about a mile downstream before being stopped and held in place.  Her engine and boiler were not yet completed; sadly, these, too, met with misfortune.  The day before the “Lyman Truman’s” launching, the boiler exploded while being tested in a machine shop on Hawley Street in Binghamton.  Parts flew upward and outward, some landing 500 feet away, another part embedded itself into the roadway, severing a gas pipe with noxious fumes filling the air.  Two people were killed instantly, a third soon died from his injuries, and ten others received various light to severe injuries. 


By mid May, the “Lyman Truman” had a new boiler in place, just in time for the island’s full season.  This was 1876, our nation’s centennial year, and celebrations were being held everywhere, with the island no exception.  A great loss, however, was the passing of “Old Joe” in April, but the island’s summer calendar moved forward.  The Hiawatha House hotel had just had its third floor added and was ready for the grand opening on June 7th of Hiawatha Grove on the Big Island.  About 2000 people came for the July 4th centennial celebrations on the island.  Even with a brief heavy shower, everyone was in high spirits.  The Declaration of Independence was read along with prayer, a song, and a lengthy speech.  Croquet and various lawn games were played, and bands provided music for dancing couples, along with a great deal of delicious food being consumed by those enjoying the day’s events. 


Every year, travel to the island was enjoyed by thousands.  There were other steamers like “Helen,” “Welles,”Glen Mary,” “Dora” and “Clara,” with the “Marshland” in use for the 1884 season after the “Truman” had been sold.  In 1883, the crowds virtually disappeared with the “Lyman Truman” having been sold, as complaints began surfacing of island/hotel mismanagement in 1882.  Now, with the “Marshland” operating in 1884, business picked up again with its 4th of July celebrations reportedly being better than ever with 3000 tickets sold for the day!  People were coming from as far away as Elmira, Carbondale, PA, Auburn, NY, Waverly, Candor, Cortland, and, of course, Binghamton, Owego and Nichols.  The Grand Army Association held its annual reunion of Civil War veterans with tremendous crowds attending.  In fact, by the end of the 1884 season, “the Hiawatha House hotel register [showed] that…people had come to the island from twenty-six states and nine foreign countries.”  (Sedore, p.85)


In August 1887, Cyrenus LaMonte sold the Big Island, now known as Hiawatha Island, to Dr. S. Andral Kilmer and Company of Binghamton who later sold his half to his brother, Jonas M. Kilmer, in 1892.  Apparently, Kilmer had stated he hoped to build a sanitarium on the island.  Though the 1888 season was a great success, the island was never again used as a summer resort.  The Big Island’s greatest days were unexpectedly silenced forever.


The Kilmers made no announcements or promises for opening the 1889 season.   The steamboats were leased or sold.  Boats were not allowed to dock at the island by the Kilmers, and no one was allowed entrance to the island to observe how their work was coming on the new sanitarium.  “The 1889 season came and went without the usual excursions to Hiawatha House and the grove.  There was no dancing, bowling or billiards.  Hiawatha was closed to the public.”  (Sedore, p.111)  Though small groups were occasionally allowed entrance to the hotel, the demise of the island’s success was obvious.  Instead, the Kilmer family used it as their private family retreat. 


Sedore includes an 1890 photo of the Hiawatha House (Sedore, p.121, fig.32).  Near the dock at the river’s edge, she stood tall, an elegant lady in white, an impressive four stories, with first and second floor balconies, and fourth floor dormers.  In 1900, the island was sold by Jonas Kilmer, and a succession of various owners filed through the property in the ensuing decades.  Hiawatha House was taken down in 1932 after falling into disrepair as other outbuildings either burned or collapsed with age.  Aerial photos from 1900, 1937, and 1955 show how few trees remained on the island.  From the highways today, it’s hard to tell what the interior of the island looks like beyond its border of trees along the river’s edge.  It has been used during the 20th century for private family retreats and camping to dairy farming. 


I also recall that Hiawatha Island went on the auction block on August 20, 1988 following financial difficulties by its then current owner.  Inquiries about purchasing the island came from Japan and the Arab countries, with an ad in the Boston Globe bringing ten phone calls in two days.  Having heard a local land developer intended to purchase the island to strip-mine it, the Historic Owego Marketplace, Inc., also known as the Hiawatha Purchase Committee (a non-profit group of Owego business people), decided to purchase the island to protect it.  They barely managed the successful bid at $351,000; yet, with a 10% buyer’s premium, the total purchase price was $386,100.  Ultimately, the final cost was over $700,000 with interest payments and other expenses.


Numerous people, volunteers, and businesses came together to help raise funds to pay off the purchase price, an accomplishment many thought impossible.  A good number of fundraisers were held, with Noel “Paul” Stokey (of Peter, Paul and Mary fame) coming to town to give a concert.  After four years, the fundraising group was able to pay back those who had kindly loaned money to the purchase committee.  An annual “Walk Through Time” was held on the island along with a Native American Pow-wow. 

When the Hiawatha Purchase Committee paid off their debt for the purchase in 1993, they turned their ownership over to the Waterman Conservation Education Center in Apalachin for perpetual conservation.  The purchase committee insisted on restrictions to keep the island in a natural state forever, and that the name would always be Hiawatha Island.  Waterman Center’s director, Scott MacDonald, has said, “From a naturalist’s standpoint, we preserved a very unique piece of land for the community.  It truly is the ‘jewel’ of the river.”  (Life in the Finger Lakes.com)  “The Waterman Center plans to use the island for education classes on Native American civilizations, conservation, wildlife, and perhaps archeology.” (Sedore, p.220)   In 2006, a family of bald eagles was actually spotted living on this now-protected island!  And, I’m sure that many more eagles have made the island their home since then.


What a legacy the Hiawatha Purchase Committee has left us for the future.  In allowing the island to rest without commercial traffic, its use strictly limited under conservation guidelines, this gem of the Susquehanna once again shines in its natural state.


BOOK SOURCE:  Hiawatha Island: Jewel of the Susquehanna by Emma M. Sedore, pub. Tioga County Historical Society, March 1, 1994.


Linda Roorda

It's Laundry Day!


Starting my early Saturday morning chore of laundry, I couldn’t help recall this article posted a few years ago.  Doing the laundry is everyone’s favorite chore, right?  Ummm… no!  Even with modern conveniences, it’s a task I don’t think many of us look forward to.  Sort the darks and lights, delicate linens from the jeans, pre-treat stains, use various cycles and water temperatures, to bleach or not to bleach, does it go in the dryer, on a hanger or the clothesline outside, does it need to be ironed or can it get by with some wrinkles, etc.  You all get the idea!  https://homespunancestors.wordpress.com/


I remember as I grew up that my dad’s mother did laundry on Monday and ironed on Tuesday, without fail.  Both she and my mother had old wringer washers, which fascinated us kids.  My sister and I actually enjoyed putting the laundry through the rollers to “wring” out the excess water, heeding the warning to keep our fingers away from those menacing rollers!  I’m sure many of my readers remember those antique washers, too!  With perhaps a few fingers painfully scrunched between the rollers.


So, imagine what it must have been like doing laundry in colonial days without washers and dryers.  The fabrics were wool, linen, cotton or silk, without permanent press.  It was a major undertaking back then, and not an effort completed every week.  I found it interesting to learn that most items laundered were “body linen.”  These garments (undershirts, shifts, chemises, etc.) were worn next to the skin to protect the fancy outer shirts and dresses from skin oils and sweat.  Clothing from a few centuries ago was not laundered often because the undergarments protected them, in turn being the very reason that antique clothing has survived the centuries.  Removable cuffs and collars also protected their shirts and dresses from dirt, along with the full bib aprons which I recall my mom’s mother always wearing over her dresses in the old farmhouse.  My dad’s mother seemed to wear mostly a from-the-waist type apron over her every-day dress.  Wearing pants, or jeans, was out of the question for my grandmothers’ generation!


But, to wash all the laundry, soap was needed.  One of the annual fall chores was to make soap, typically done after the fall butchering of hogs.  Virtually every part of a butchered hog had a purpose with the lard being used for cooking or making soap.  Soap making began well in advance by burning hardwoods down to white ash.  Next, a tall wooden barrel was set up with holes in the bottom for drainage.  Small stones were placed in the bottom of the barrel, and covered with straw.  A good layer of white ashes was put in with naturally soft rainwater poured on top of the ashes.  Then followed a slow drainage of the water down through the ashes, straw and stones before the liquid leached out of the holes in the bottom of the barrel and into a separate wooden or glass bucket.  This effort produced liquid lye.  Aluminum containers were not used as the lye would destroy them.


Sometimes an ash hopper was used to make lye rather than the tall wooden barrel.  By keeping the ash hopper in a shed to protect it from rain, fresh ashes could be added periodically with water poured on top every so often to obtain a steady supply of lye.  Again, the lye would drip slowly into a bucket beneath the hopper. 


To test the strength of the lye, either a potato or an egg was floated on top.  If it floated with about a modern quarter-sized area of its surface above the liquid, the lye was ready for use in making soap.  If it was too weak, it could be boiled down more, or poured back through more ashes.  If it was too strong, a little more water was added.


To make old-fashioned soap, water, lye and tallow/animal fat is needed.  One recipe I found online uses 2 gallons of rain water, 10 ounces of lye by volume (not weight), and 5 lbs of tallow/lard (animal fat).  Trim the fat into about 1-inch cubes, removing anything that looks like meat or is not white.  Start a fire under a cast iron pot (split pine apparently works best as it heats quickly and the heat is controlled easier).  Place the tallow cubes into the pot to render (cook) the fat into a liquid.  Once the fat has cooked down, strain it through cheesecloth in a funnel-shaped container.  The liquid should be a nice amber color. 


Then, measure and weigh 5 lbs of liquid fat, putting it back into the cast iron pot (again, aluminum will be eaten by the lye).  Slowly add the water to the fat, which cools the fat down to solidify it into a greasy cream.  Make sure the mixture is well blended.  Carefully measure out 10 oz. of lye into a glass container.  (Red Devil Lye brand can be purchased, and was often used by our ancestors if they did not make their own lye from ashes.)  Carefully add the lye into the tallow/water mixture using a wooden paddle to stir it gently.  Be careful - since lye is extremely caustic, it can burn your skin and eyes on contact. 


Cook the soap mixture for 30-60 minutes, stirring occasionally, adjusting the heat to keep it from boiling over.  After cooking, the mixture should be similar to a creamy chicken soup.  When the wooden paddle removed from the mixture has “sheets” that look like hot wax hanging from the paddle, it’s ready to pour into wooden, glass or cast-iron molds that have been lined with plastic wrap or waxed paper.  Allow the soap to harden for a few days before cutting it into bars.  It may take a week or more to harden for use.  (Online Source:  Shepherds Hill Homestead, Making Lye Soap)


Before washing stacks of laundry, the ladies would have sorted the clothing, soaking some overnight in soapy water.  Sounds similar enough, doesn’t it?!  But, the difference starts with their gathering enough firewood to feed a large fire under each huge copper (which did not rust or stain like iron) or black cast-iron kettle.  You’ve seen those kettles in front yards either upright or on their side as a large flower urn.  The Iron Kettle Farm in Candor takes its name from their large black iron kettles on display.


Next, water had to be hauled from the well to fill the kettle(s) and any other wash or rinse basins.  About 20-40 gallons of water were needed per wash load, with perhaps 10 gallons more for the scrub and rinse basins.  Remember, they had no running water back then either; and, if they did not have a water source close at hand, walking a distance with heavy shoulder yokes to carry buckets of water would have been the norm.  My mom’s mother raised a large farm family of 12 children, not having running water in the house until about 1932, 21 years after my grandparents married (my mother, child #11, was born in 1933).  Are we tired yet?!


After starting a good fire under the kettle to boil the water, some lye soap was put into the water.  Clothes were then dunked into the boiling water and agitated by using a 2-3 foot long wooden paddle.  Some garments might be removed to a smaller basin where they could be scrubbed more thoroughly to remove dirt and stains.  Remember the antique wooden shutter-like washboards?  They were put to good use as the clothes were rubbed over the “shutters” to loosen dirt.  Chalk and brick dust were often used on greasy stains.  Alcohol could treat grass stains, kerosene, and blood stains.  Milk was believed to be helpful in removing fruit stains from clothing and urine stains from diapers.  Lemon and onion juice were often used for bleaching. 


Colored garments were not washed with lye soap in order to prevent fading.  Instead, they were scrubbed by hand in cold or lukewarm water.  Need something starched?  Great-great-grandma simply put that garment into water that had been used to cook potatoes or rice, making sure the water had not soured or turned moldy before putting the clothing in it.  If the used potato or rice water was not used for laundry, it was often used to make bread.  Nothing went to waste back then. 


Once boiled, washed and rinsed, the laundry had to be wrung out before drying.  If you were wealthy, you might own a “box mangle” which wound the laundry around rollers, and then rolled a heavy box over them to squeeze out excess water.  Normally, water was simply wrung out by hand by twisting each garment.  Then, the clothing was hung on a clothesline (without clothespins), spread out on bushes, hedgerows, fences, wooden frames, or even spread out over the lawn.  And, oh my!  If the farm animals or pets got into the clothing, one likely had quite a mess and had to start all over again.  If it was not good drying weather, everything was dried inside the house or up in the attic.  A good hot fire in the fireplace or cook stove would help dry the clothes very well.


After the laundry was done and dried, the ladies would need to iron the clothing.  That required heating up heavy irons in the fireplace in order to press each garment.  What a hot chore that must have been!  And all the time they were taking care of the laundry, they had other household chores and meals to prepare, children to care for, and barn chores if the man of the house was out in the fields clearing land, planting or harvesting.  It was definitely not an easy life for our ancestors…

Linda Roorda

We Americans love our 4th of July celebrations!  We especially enjoy big parades with lots of floats and marching bands.  We look forward to fireworks with their beautiful colors and designs exploding in the night sky.  We decorate our homes with flags and bunting.  And, we salute, or respectfully place our hand over our heart, as our nation’s flag is carried past us by military veterans in parades. 


“…We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness…”  What precious meaning these words have held as we take time to gaze backward to their origins, something I never tire learning about.


As I contemplated our nation’s celebrations, I thought about the effort and sacrifice it took from many to give us the freedoms we so often take for granted.  I am so thankful for all we have in America which many around the world do not enjoy.  But, I also wondered if perhaps we have forgotten all that took place a long time ago, and if this day has simply become a traditional fun holiday.  Though no nation or government has been perfect as far back as the beginning of time, the early days of a young nation’s beginnings provide perspective for today’s America, this bastion of freedom.  So, it’s fitting that we ponder what part our ancestors played in the making of our great America some 240 years ago.  And, I might add, one of the best parts of researching my ancestors was the great lasting friendships I’ve made with other descendants.


Several of my ancestors served in the Revolutionary War in various capacities, some of whom I researched more extensively than others.  Originally, I did not plan to bring them into this article.  But, then it occurred to me that would be fitting.  Knowledge of personal service and sacrifice often provides us with a greater understanding of the historical era and what our collective ancestors experienced. 


Numerous events, political acts, and taxes over many years led to the First Continental Congress meeting from September 5 through October 2, 1774 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  It was held to counteract the British Parliament’s Coercive Acts (commonly called the Intolerable Acts by the colonists) which were intended to punish the colonists for their Tea Party held in Boston’s harbor.  (see timeline at end of article)


But, among the early precipitators of the American Revolution was the import ban in 1774 against firearms and gunpowder enacted by the British government.  Next came the order to confiscate all guns and gunpowder.  The aptly named “Powder Alarm” took place on September 1, 1774 when Redcoats sailed up the Mystic River to capture hundreds of powder barrels stored in Charlestown.  Taking the event seriously, 20,000 militiamen turned out and marched to Boston.  Battle was avoided at that time, but ultimately took place the following spring at Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775.  Within these events lie the foundation of our Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution as written by Thomas Jefferson in 1791: “A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.”


The Second Continental Congress began meeting in Philadelphia on May 10, 1775.  That very same day, Ethan Allen and his Green Mountain Boys seized New York’s Fort Ticonderoga from the British after traveling west from Vermont.


On June 14, 1775, delegates from the Second Continental Congress created the Continental Army from colonial militia near Boston.  The next day, they appointed an esteemed and experienced military and civic leader as commanding general of their new army, a humble man by the name of George Washington, congressman of Virginia.  Nearly a month later, Washington arrived in Boston to take command on July 3rd.  The Continental Congress then approved a Declaration of Causes on July 6th.  This proclamation outlined why the thirteen colonies should stand united against Great Britain’s political clout and military force.


Through these early years, and with pressing urgency, the great minds of the day began formulating a bold statement of the burdens the colonists bore from an overbearing government an ocean away.  Initially, the colonists were not looking to start a war; they simply wanted their concerns heard and addressed.  But, revolt would be a relevant term regarding that which was festering.  They felt the heavy hand of tyranny over them like a smothering umbrella with their king and his government’s over-reaching philosophy of “taxation without representation.”   


It did not take much for congressional delegates to think back and recall the Boston Massacre of March 5, 1770.  Several colonials had taunted the ever-present British soldiers.  Reinforcement soldiers shot into the crowd killing five civilians, injuring six others.  Three years later, the Tea Act in May 1773 was followed by the Boston Tea Party on December 16th.  The year 1775 began with several new tax acts put in place; labeled collectively as the Intolerable Acts, they were Britain’s answer to their colonists’ unrest.  And then an auspicious delegation met in Virginia on March 23, 1775.  Those present were never to forget Patrick Henry’s speech and resounding words, “Give me liberty or give me death!”


Paul Revere,with his midnight ride the night of April 18/19, 1775, warned of British ships arriving at Boston’s shores.  [From the interstate, I have seen Boston’s diminutive North Church tucked beneath the shadows of modern “skyscrapers,” and walked the upper and lower decks of the U.S.S. Constitution from the subsequent War of 1812 – with a sailor in period dress uniform talking on a telephone!]  Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem, “Paul Revere’s Ride” (“Listen my children and you shall hear of the midnight ride of Paul Revere…”) has been said to contain many inaccuracies; in reality, it was written 80 years after Revere rode out with several others on horseback, quietly alerting other Patriots, but it may also be that Longfellow simply wrote a flowing ode to Revere with embellishments as any poet is wont to do. 


The British government was again intent on confiscating all weapons held by the colonists.  Bands of British troops were sent to confiscate ammunition stores in Salem, Massachusetts and part of New Hampshire.  Both times, Paul Revere, a silversmith, was among members of the Sons of Liberty who alerted townsfolk in advance of enemy troops, giving them sufficient time to hide weapons and frustrate the British military.


Desiring to alert citizens, Revere garnered assistance from Robert Newman, sexton at Boston’s North Church.  To warn that the Redcoats were coming from the shorter water route across Boston’s inner harbor, Newman hung two lanterns from the steeple window.  These lanterns were clearly seen by those in Charlestown, including the British, unfortunately.  Newman must have felt tremendous fear as the Brits attempted to break into the church while he was still there.  Reportedly, he managed to escape capture by quietly sneaking out a window near the altar moments before enemy soldiers entered the church to begin their search.  And the very next day, April 19, 1775, the Minutemen and British redcoats clashed at Lexington and Concord with “the shot heard ‘round the world.’” 


Two months later, June 17, 1775 saw the Battle of Bunker Hill (actually Breed’s Hill) on the Charlestown Peninsula overlooking Boston.  Per military records, my ancestor John Caldwell McNeill was present as part of the Hampshire Line.  As British columns advanced toward American redoubts, the colonists were reportedly told by their commander, “Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes!”  The British were shot virtually pointblank and hastily retreated – twice.  It was not until the third advance by the British that the inexperienced colonists lost to a superior military force.  As the colonists’ limited ammunition ran out, hand-to-hand combat took place on that third advance.  The redcoats took control with greater troop numbers despite their loss of over 1000 men, while the colonists counted over 200 killed and more than 800 wounded.  Yet, the inexperienced Americans realized their dedication and determination could overcome the superior British military which, in turn, realized this little uprising was going to bring a long and costly war to the Crown.  


With pressure mounting, the congressional delegation met the next year in the City of Brotherly Love.  Here, they commenced to hammering out wording for what would henceforth be termed a declaration of independence. 


“Monday, July 1, 1776, [was] a hot and steamy [day] in Philadelphia.”  In a letter to the new president of Georgia, Archibald Bulloch, John Adams wrote, “This morning is assigned the greatest debate of all.  A declaration, that these colonies are free and independent states… and this day or tomorrow is to determine its fate.  May heaven prosper the newborn republic.” (John Adams, David McCullough, Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, New York, NY, 2001, p.125.)  The delegates felt the tension amongst themselves in the debates and wording of their declaration, and the voting at the end of the day was not unanimous.  Their tension was heightened that evening as news reached the city that one hundred British ships had been sighted off New York, with eventually more than 300 joining the initial fleet.  The seriousness of what they were undertaking was felt by every man in the delegation for they knew their very lives were on the line.


July 2nd saw an overcast day with cloudbursts letting loose as the delegates met.  The New York delegates abstained from voting while others joined the majority to make a unanimous decision.  Thus, on July 2, 1776, twelve colonies voted to declare independence from Britain.  More than anyone else, John Adams made it happen.  His elation showed in writing home about the proceedings to his wife, Abigail.  “The second day of July 1776 will be the most memorable epoch in the history of America.  I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival.  It ought to be commemorated as the Day of Deliverance by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty.  It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations from one end of this continent to the other from this time forward forever more.”  (McCullough, pp. 129-130)


News spread like wildfire throughout Philadelphia.  A young artist, Charles Willson Peale, journaled that “This day the Continental Congress declared the United Colonies Free and Independent States.”  (McCullough, p.130)   But, Congress still had to review what the delegation had written before an official statement could be made.


July 3rd blessed the city with a drop of 10 degrees following cloudbursts the day before.  Tensions had even begun to ease among the men, but still there was much work to be done.  More discussion and deliberation ensued as they reviewed the language of their declaration.  (McCullough, pp. 130-135)  Much had to be cut and reworded to make it a more concise document which then boldly declared, “The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America.  When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.” 


Benjamin Franklin offered encouraging and comforting words to the now-silent Thomas Jefferson whose many words were debated and cut.  When their work was finished, it was still Thomas Jefferson’s words, however, which have held a firm and tender spot in the hearts of Americans ever since.  To Jefferson goes the credit for writing “…We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.  That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…”  (McCullough, p.130-136)


Thursday, July 4, 1776, dawned cool and comfortable.  The tension was gone from the weather just as it was now from among the men of the delegation.  Discussions were again held through late morning when a final vote was taken.  New York still abstained, but the other twelve colonies voted unanimously to support the hard work they had wrought in this Declaration of Independence.  Ultimately, the delegates from all thirteen colonies, including New York, signed the document in solidarity. (McCullough, p. 136)


Celebrations began on the 8th when the published Declaration was read to the public.  Thirteen cannon blasts reverberated throughout Philadelphia, bells rang day and night, bonfires were lit everywhere, and candles shone bright in windows.  The news reached Washington and his troops in New York City the next day where the Declaration was read.  More celebrations sprang up as the crowds pulled down the equestrian statue of King George III.  (McCullough, p.136-137)  But, their elation was not long in lasting.


In reality, it would be several more years before celebrations of this magnitude would again be held.  In reality, though the hard work of writing such a declaration was finally completed, even harder efforts and sacrifices of thousands of men and boys on battlefields were about to begin.  In reality, the conflict about to begin would affect every man, woman and child living within the thirteen colonies in ways they could never have imagined.  And, ultimately, their great sacrifices gave rise to the freedoms which we enjoy and tend to take for granted today.


The lives of the men who signed this declaration were also forever affected.  If the new America lost its war for independence, every signer of said document faced charges of treason and death by hanging for actions against their king.  In signing, they gave “support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, [as] we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.” 


There were 56 representatives from all thirteen colonies who signed, ranging in age from 26 to 70 (the oldest being the esteemed Benjamin Franklin).  Over half were lawyers, but the men included planters, merchants and shippers.  Most of them were wealthy men who had much to lose should Britain win.  Though none of them died at the hand of the enemy, four men were taken captive during the war by the British, with one-third of the signers being military officers during the war.  And, nearly all of them were poorer when the war ended than when it began. 


There was much at stake in the days and years ahead after the Declaration of Independence was signed and the war began in earnest.  Some men abandoned the battle lines, their friends, and what once seemed like worthy ideals, and simply walked home.  Many suffered untold pain and suffering as prisoners of war.  Many suffered deprivations of food and clothing along with disease and death within their own military camps.  Many fought family and friends in the same community as Patriot was pitted against Tory, i.e. Loyalist.  Schoharie County, New York, considered by historians to be “The Breadbasket of the Revolution,” provided an abundance of food for Washington’s northern troops.  To frustrate the colonists’ efforts, the British and their Loyalist supporters, including many Native Americans, destroyed and burned crops and buildings as they captured, killed and scalped settlers throughout the Mohawk and Schoharie Valley and along the western frontier during the war. 


In reality, however, we likely would not have won our independence if it were not for Washington’s spies.  Barely two months after the Declaration was signed, a 21-year-old Yale graduate by the name of Nathan Hale from Massachusetts eagerly volunteered to spy for Washington.  He intended to go behind enemy lines on Long Island and in New York City to infiltrate the British strongholds.  Instead, not being sufficiently familiar with the area and its people, and likely having a New England accent, he was caught and found to have sketches of fortifications and memos about troop placements on him.  Without benefit of legal trial, he was sentenced to death.  His requests for a clergyman and a Bible were refused.  Just before being hung on September 22, 1776 in the area of 66th Street and Third Avenue in Manhattan, Hale was heard to say with dignity, “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.”  (George Washington’s Secret Six, Brian Kilmeade and Don Yaeger, Penguin Group, New York, NY, 2013, p.1.)


George Washington knew that he desperately needed spies, but he needed them to work in such a way that they would not be discovered.  His tender heart for his fellow countrymen deplored that even one should die for the cause of freedom.  Yet, he also knew that such loss was inevitable.  And, thus was born Washington’s spies so aptly named, “The Secret Six.”




Out of the realization that Gen. George Washington desperately needed spies, and hating to lose even one more life after the hanging of Nathan Hale, a ring of trustworthy spies was gradually pulled together.  Washington’s “Secret Six” included five men and one woman embedded within and around New York City and Long Island, each familiar with the land and its people.  They reported to Washington on British movements and military plans in a timely fashion. 


Because they knew the area, and were known by the people, they were readily accepted as they maneuvered amongst the enemy.  That is not to say, however, that they didn’t come close to being found out.  They lived in constant fear of such, not to mention the fear of losing their own lives and destroying their families in the process.  At times they were emotionally frail, depressed and despondent.  But, because of their passion for the freedom movement afoot, they came together for the greater benefit of all.


At one point, Washington’s army was entirely surrounded by the British in New York City.  With tips from his spies, and being a man given to much time and prayer with God, his troops managed to quietly evacuate the city under the cover of night at an area not under guard.  With dawn, however, came the realization that a large contingent still remained behind and would be very visible to the enemy.  An answer to prayer was soon forthcoming to allow the balance of his men and equipment to leave the city – an unexpected and extremely dense morning fog enveloped the area, allowing them to continue crossing safely over into Jersey with the British unable to do anything about the Continental Army’s escape from their clutches. 


Because of the work of Washington’s spies and the “important memos” he managed to have planted with false information behind enemy lines, the Americans were able to surprise the enemy at Trenton, New Jersey on Christmas Day night 1776 after the British had relaxed their guard and celebrated the day in style.  Needless to say, the Americans enjoyed a vital and rousing victory.


Because of the spies and their efforts, accomplished with great fear for their own lives and that of their families, warning was given to Washington of 400 ships arriving from England.  The spies’ insider knowledge that the British were planning to attack and scuttle the French ships and troops coming to Washington’s aid allowed him to turn the tide in a timely manner.  He was able to fool the British into thinking he was readying an imminent attack on New York City, causing them to leave Long Island Sound, thus allowing the French time to land and move inland to safety in Connecticut without battling the British at sea before they even disembarked.


Because of the spy who owned a print shop which seemingly supported King George, important plans were heard and passed on to Washington.  Other spies were privy to the upper level of command amongst the British military at parties in a particular merchandise shop and a certain coffeehouse.  A circuitous route was set up for their messenger across Long Island to Setauket where packets with concealed or innocuous-looking papers written in invisible ink and code were rowed to the Connecticut shore in a whale boat (while being pursued by the British) where another member took the seemingly innocent packet of merchandise and rode his horse overland to Washington’s camp in New Jersey.  At times, someone simply traveled out of New York City to visit relatives in northern New Jersey and met up with another dependable link to pass the information along to Washington’s headquarters.


Because of their courage and resolve, the spies assisted in uncovering the Crown’s Major John Andre` (who, himself, ran a British spy ring) as he worked with Brigadier General Benedict Arnold, American commander at West Point.  Despite a prior stellar military record, but due to personal bitterness, Arnold was in the process of handing West Point over to Andre` and the British.  Through a series of blundering mistakes, because of the spies’ knowledge given to Washington at just the right moment, and because of the quick thinking of a couple of patriotic guards on a bridge leading back into New York City, Andre` was captured and later executed.  Arnold’s hand-over was thus thwarted, although Arnold managed to escape behind enemy lines and ultimately fled to England.


Because of the supposed loyal British support by the owner of said print shop, a little book was obtained through his work as an undercover spy.  This inconspicuous little book contained key information on British troop movements at Yorktown, Virginia.  With important knowledge gained of the enemy’s military plans, Washington was able to redirect appropriate troops and ships to Yorktown.  General Cornwallis surrendered for the British on October 19, 1781 in an American victory where total defeat for the Americans would have otherwise taken place. 


Because they swore themselves to secrecy, no one knew the full involvement of all six spies, nor all of their names.  Only gradually over the last few hundred years has their identities become known, the fifth not confirmed until recently.  All five men are now known, but the woman’s identity is not; she is simply known as Agent 355.  It is believed she was captured and became a prisoner; but, there is no hard evidence by research even to prove that conjecture. 


The efforts of the six spies as they secretly obtained information and passed it along (devising their own specialty codes, using a unique invisible ink, and more) enabled them to maintain total secrecy.  Nor did they ever seek accolades for their work after the war was over.  The secrets to their successful accomplishments have been among the methods still taught and used successfully by our CIA today.


In the interest of sharing the spies’ courage which undoubtedly helped us win the Revolutionary War, their story (as briefly described above) has been extensively researched and written by Brian Kilmeade and Don Yaeger in George Washington’s Secret Six, The Spy Ring That Saved the American Revolution.  It was one of my Christmas gifts from my husband a few years ago, and I highly recommend it to other history buffs.  It’s a read you’ll find hard to set down!


While researching my ancestry over ten years ago, I purchased Revolutionary War pension application files of several ancestors who had served.  For those whose government files I did not purchase, their data was obtained from Schoharie County Historical Society, various Revolutionary War books, CDs, and documents proving their service.  Hoping that my family research might provide us a closer glimpse of the war through their experiences, I share their legacy.


1) Frantz/Francis Becraft/Beacraft, bp. 06/12/1761, Claverack, Columbia Co., NY - Private, 3rd Comp., 3rd Regiment, 1st Rensselaerswyck Battalion, Albany County New York Militia, on muster roll from Berne in 1782, 1790 census at Berne.  In an 1839 affidavit, Francis Becraft of Berne stated that he “served as a Private in a company commanded by Capt. Adam Dietz in the County of Albany...” Frantz/Francis married Catherine Dietz (sister of said Capt. Adam Dietz), my g-g-g-g-grandparents.


In researching my ancestors, I discovered an apparent familial tie to the notorious Tory Becraft/Beacraft.  This man felt no remorse in aligning himself with Joseph Brant’s Indians to capture, kill and scalp Patriots throughout Schoharie County, known to have brutally killed and scalped a young boy in the Vrooman family who managed to escape the house after his family had been murdered.  After the war ended, Becraft/Beacraft had the audacity to return from Canada to Schoharie County where he was immediately captured by ten men.  In meting out a punishment of 50 lashes by whip, the men supposedly reminded him of his infamous acts against the community, his former neighbors.  Roscoe notes that death did not linger for him after the final lash, and his ashes were buried on the spot.  Of the ten men who swore themselves to secrecy, apparently only five are known.  (History of Schoharie County, William E. Roscoe, pub. D. Mason & Comp., 1882, pp.250-251.)  


However, in "Families (to 1825) of Herkimer, Montgomery, & Schoharie, N.Y.," a genealogical source on many early families by William V. H. Barker, it is noted that the Tory Becraft/Beacraft was Benjamin, born about 1759, brother of my ancestor noted above, Frantz/Francis Becraft.  If this is accurate and they are indeed brothers, they were both sons of Willem/William and Mareitje (Bond) Becraft.  Another source, “The Life of Joseph Brant – Thayendanegea…” notes Becraft survived his whipping and left the area (pg. 64), just as other undocumented sources indicate he survived and returned to Canada to live with his family.  So, I am uncertain as to whether Tory [Benjamin] Becraft actually died from his whippings or survived and left the area.


2) Johannes/John Berlet/Berlett/Barlet, b. 05/08/1748, Schoharie, Schoharie Co., NY – Private, Tryon County Militia, 3rd Reg’t, Mohawk District.  He married Maria Gardinier, b. about 1751; their daughter Eva/Eveline Barlett married Martin Tillapaugh, b. 1778, my g-g-g-grandparents.


3) Johann Hendrich/John Henry Dietz, bp 05/10/1722, Nordhofen, Vielbach, Germany – served in Lt. John Veeder’s Company, Rensselaerswyck, later under Capt. Sternberger’s Company at Schoharie.  He married Maria Elisabetha Ecker, bp. 1725; their daughter Catherine Dietz, b. 1761, married Frantz/Francis Beacraft above, my g-g-g-g-grandparents.


As per my upcoming article on Chemung County’s Newtown Battle, the Indian/Loyalist raids and massacres also touched my ancestral families in New York.  In Beaverdam (now Berne), New York near the Switzkill River on September 1, 1781, the Johannes Dietz family was attacked.  Johannes’ son, Capt. William Dietz was captured and forced to watch his elderly parents, wife, four young children and a Scottish maid be killed and scalped.  (see “Old Hellebergh,” Arthur B. Gregg, The Altamont Enterprise Publishers, Altamont, N.Y., 1936, p. 24; signed by Gregg, in Roorda’s collection from her father.)  Capt. William Dietz’s father, Johannes, was an older brother of my ancestor noted above, Johann Hendrich/John Henry Dietz. 


4) Johan Dietrich Dallenbach/John Richard Dillenbach, b. 1733 per cemetery records, Stone Arabia, NY; father Jorg Martin Dallenbach born Lauperswil, Bern, Switzerland, emigrated with 1710 German Palatines.  John Richard Dillenbach married Maria Mynard; their son Martinus took name of Martin Tillapaugh (my lineage), married Eva/Eveline Barlett as above.  Dillenbach reported for duty March 20, 1757 when Sir William Johnson called local militia out to protect Fort William Henry on Lake George for the British.  The Seven Years’ War, or the French and Indian War, began in 1754 and ended with the European peace treaties of 1763 during which year Dillenbach again reported to defend Herkimer with the Palatine District Regiment.


James Fennimore Cooper wrote The Last of the Mohicans about the siege of Fort William Henry.  Roughly 2300 colonial troops were protecting the British fort when the French arrived with about 8000 troops in August 1763 and heavily bombarded the fort.  With additional supporting troops not found to be on their way, the garrison was forced to surrender.  The men were to be protected as they retreated by generous treaty terms.  However, as the Indians entered the fort, they plundered, looted, scalped and killed about 200 colonials, many of them too sick to leave.  In desecrating graves of those who had died before the siege, the Indians exposed themselves to smallpox, taking the germs back to their homes.  The French destroyed the fort before returning to Canada.  Fort William Henry was reconstructed in the 1950s.  Visiting this fort in 1972 with the Lounsberry Methodist Church youth group, I was unaware at the time that my Dallenbach/Tillapaugh ancestor had walked that ground, having been involved in the siege and survived. 


5) Timothy Hutton, b.11/24/1746, New York City.  He married 2nd) Elizabeth Deline b.1760.  Their son George b.1787 married Sarah Wyckoff b.1793, my g-g-g-grandparents.  Timothy served as Ensign in Philip Schuyler’s Regiment of Albany County Militia, at defeat of Gen. Burgoyne in Saratoga October 17, 1777; appointed Lieutenant in New York Levies under Col. Marinus Willett; defended Schoharie County from burnings and killings by British, Loyalists and Indians.  This Timothy is not to be confused with a nephew of same name and rank, b. 1764, which many have done, including an erroneous grave marker in Carlisle, New York.  Sorting their military service out was part of my extensive thesis and documentation in researching and publishing two lengthy articles on the origins and descendants of this Hutton family in the New York Genealogical & Biographical Record in 2004-2005. 


My Timothy’s nephew William Hutton served extensively in the Revolutionary War throughout New York City, Long Island, and the Hudson Valley.  My Timothy’s nephew Christopher of Troy, NY served as Ensign, promoted to Lieutenant, member of the elite Society of the Cincinnati.  My Timothy’s nephew, Timothy Hutton b.1764, served as Lieutenant in New York Levies under Col. Willett, enlisting 1780 at age 16 in the Albany militia.  My Timothy’s nephews, Isaac and George (brothers of Christopher and the younger Timothy, all sons of George Hutton, my ancestor Timothy’s older brother), were well-known influential silversmiths over several decades of the Federal period in the late 18th/early 19th centuries in Albany.  Hutton silver is on display at museums in Albany, New York.


6) Johannes Leenderse (John Leonardson), b.06/18/63, Fonda, Montgomery Co., NY - enlisted as private in 1779 at age 16, Tryon County Militia, 3rd Reg’t; Corporal in 1781; served on many expeditions in the Mohawk Valley and at forts; joined Col. Willett’s company on march to Johnstown October 1781 in successful battle against enemy who had burned and killed throughout Mohawk Valley; re-enlisted 1782.  Married Sarah Putman b.1773.  Their son Aaron Leondardson b.1796 married 3rd) Lana Gross, parents of Mary Eliza b. about 1732 who married William Henry Ottman, my g-g-grandparents.


7) John Caldwell McNeill, b. 1755, Londonderry, Rockingham Co., NH - at Bunker Hill (actually Breed’s Hill) on Charlestown June 17, 1775.  As Sergeant under Col. Timothy Bedel of the New Hampshire Line, John bought beef to pasture and butcher as needed for the troops.  Bedel’s regiment joined “Corp.1, Co. 1, New York Reg’t” on mission to Canada against British; taken captive with his cousins and friends at The Cedars near Montreal, an island in the St. Lawrence; soldiers were stripped of clothing, belongings and food, and released in cartel negotiated by Gen. Benedict Arnold before he became a traitor.  John served at and discharged at Saratoga, NY.  He married Hannah Caldwell b.1762; removed to Carlisle, Schoharie County, New York ca. 1794; their son Jesse m. Elizabeth Ostrom, my g-g-g-grandparents.


8) George Richtmyer, bp 04/23/1738, Albany Co., NY – Captain from 1775 through end of war in 15th Reg’t of Albany Militia, defending Cobleskill and Middleburg, Schoharie Co., NY.  Married Anna Hommel; their son Henrich/Henry married Maria Beacraft (see above), my g-g-g-grandparents.


9) Hendrick/Henry Vonck/Vunck, b. 03/06/1757, Freehold, Monmouth Co., NJ - served as private and Corporal in New Jersey and New York City; carried papers for American Gen. Charles Lee; joined units marching to same area of Canada as John C. McNeill; on return became ill with smallpox with others at Lake George when news of the Declaration of Independence was made; honorably discharged; called to serve again at Sandy Hook, NJ; captured by the British at Sandy Hook, taken to a prison ship, then to the [Livingston] stone sugar house in Manhattan, then another prison ship, the Good___  (writing illegible on the early 1800s pension document, possibly Good Hope).  After “one year and one month” as prisoner, he was exchanged and released.  “Having suffered while a prisoner great privations and disease and in poor clothing and severely unwholesome provisions many prisoners died in consequence of their treatment.” (Per 1832 affidavit of military service for pension.)  Conditions suffered as a prisoner left Henry in poor health the rest of his life; removing later to Montgomery County, NY.  Married Chestinah Hagaman; their daughter Jane Vunck married James Dingman, my g-g-g-grandparents.


From 1776 to 1783 the British made use of decommissioned ships (those incapable of going to sea) as floating prisons.  At least 16 rotting hulks were moored in Wallabout Bay, the inner harbor along the northwest shore of Brooklyn, now part of the Brooklyn Navy Yard.  Among the ships were the Good Hope, Whitby, The Prince of Wales, Falmouth, Scorpion, Stromboli, Hunter, and the most infamous HMS Jersey, nicknamed Hell by the men. (see websites below.)  Over 10,000 men, perhaps at least 11,500, died on these ships due to the deliberate deplorable conditions.  Men were crammed below decks with no windows for lighting or fresh air.  There was a lack of food and clothing, with vermin and insects running rampant, and a lack of other humane efforts to aid the ill, all leading to the death of thousands.


Prisoners died virtually every day, reportedly as many as fifteen a day.  Some were not found right away, their bodies not disposed of until days later.  Often, those who died were sewn into their blankets (if they had one) to await pick up by cart the next morning.  Many were buried in shallow graves along the shore (unearthed during major storms) or were simply tossed overboard, later washing ashore.  With development of Walloon Bay area over the last two centuries has come the discovery of their bones and parts of ships.  To commemorate these soldiers’ lives and what they gave in the fight for independence, the Prison Ship Martyrs’ Monument was built.  Located in Fort Greene Park, Brooklyn, it was dedicated on April 6, 1808 with improvements made to it several times since.  (see websites below)


At least another 5-6000 men died in the sugar houses, bringing the total who died as prisoners to more than 17,500 in the sugar houses and ships, more than double the battlefield losses.  Sugar houses were buildings meant to store sugar and molasses.  Affidavits by my ancestor, Henry Vunck, and friends note he was held for a few months in the “stone sugar house.”  This could only mean the Livingston Sugar House, a six-story stone building built in 1754 by the Livingston family on Crown (now Liberty) Street in Manhattan.  Demolished in 1846, buildings No. 34 and 36 are now on the site.  (see website below)


A second sugar house, the Rhinelander, a five-story brick warehouse, was built in 1763 at Rose (now William) Street and Duane Street.  This building was eventually replaced and is now the headquarters of the New York City Police Department.  A third, Van Cortlandt’s sugar house, was built about 1755 by the early Dutch family of this name at the northwest corner of the Trinity Church in Manhattan.  It was demolished in 1852.  (see website below)


10) Hans Georg Jacob Dubendorffer (George Jacob Diefendorf), b. 01/23/1729, Basserstorff, Switzerland – a Loyalist during Rev War, he left Mohawk Valley for Philadelphia and New York City, returned to a daughter’s home in Canajoharie, NY after the war rather than remove to Canada.  A patriotic son disowned his father, taking his middle name (his mother’s maiden name) as his new surname, removing to Virginia.  George Jacob married Catharine Hendree; their son Jacob Diefendorf married Susanna Hess, my g-g-g-g-grandparents.


On February 3, 1783, the British government acknowledged the independence of the American colonies.  The next day, they formally agreed to halt all military operations.  A preliminary peace treaty was ratified in April, and Canada offered free land that summer to Loyalists who sought a new life.  Still, the British military maintained a presence in Manhattan.  When Britain signed the Treaty of Paris September 3, 1783 to end the war, the hated Redcoats finally and slowly began to abandon their New York City stronghold. 


Next would begin the task of establishing the government and president of this new nation, the United States of America.  George Washington rode into Manhattan on November 25, 1783 with his officers and troops, eight horses abreast.  At the same time Washington’s parade began, British soldiers and ships were setting sail for their homeland. 


Flags were joyfully waved, church bells rang in celebration, and cannons were fired in honor of those who had fought and for those who had given their lives, all for the independence of this fledgling nation.  The war had definitely taken its toll; but, on this day, great joy was felt in every heart for what had been accomplished.  And that is why we continue to celebrate our 4th of July heritage in style – as we remember and commemorate those who gave so much that we might enjoy so much.  And, I trust we will never forget what their efforts wrought for us.


Revolutionary War Time Line

Paul Revere

Robert Newman, sexton
Old North Church, April 18, 1775

Battle of Bunker Hill

United States Independence Day

Declaration of Independence Document
Declaration of Independence - About the Signers



  1. George Washington’s Secret Six, The Spy Ring That Saved the American Revolution, Brian Kilmeade and Don Yaeger, Penguin Group, New York, NY, 2013.

  2. History of Schoharie County, New York, 1713-1882, William E. Roscoe, pub. D. Mason & Co., Syracuse, N.Y., 1882; Paperback Reprint by Heritage Books, Bowie, MD, 1994, Two-Volume Set.

  3. Life of Joseph Brant – Thayendanegea; Including the Border Wars Two-Volumes, by William L. Stone, pub. Alexander V. Blake, New York, NY, 1838.

    Complete timeline of Revolutionary War

    History of the Fourth

    Sugar House Prisons

    HMS Jersey prison ship

    Monument to British prison ship martyrs 

Linda Roorda

Chances are, if your surname is Cooper, Currier, Miller, Slater, Smith, Tanner, Tailor/Taylor, or Wright, etc., the earliest known source for your name can be traced to those ancestors employed with such skills at a time when an occupation typically became the family’s surname.  Over time, others may have adopted occupational surnames even though they, themselves, held no skilled connection to such a name. 


Some names are more obvious than others.  A few years ago while writing this article on surname occupations, and discussing it with my husband, Ed began his own litany of surnames – Baker, Barber, Butcher, Carpenter, Plumber, Electrician…  Laughing, I said, “No one’s last name is Electrician!” to which he replied, “Oh that’s right; they shortened it to Sparks!”  You’re so helpful, dear!


Centuries ago, typical Scandinavian patronymic (paternal) surnames used the father’s first name with sons adding “sson/sen/zen/zon” and daughters adding “dotter/dottr”, i.e. Nielsson/Nielsen, Nielsdottr”.  Thus, each generation was tracked by the father’s birth name as a prefix in a generational changing surname.  Legislation began in 1771 to establish permanent surnames, with subsequent amendments enacted frequently since.  Surnames also denoted town of residence, name of residence, or occupation, for example:  Moller = Miller, Schmidt = Smith, and Fisker = Fisher. 

Norwegian surnames might also reference their farmland, such as:  Bakke/Bakken (hill or rise), Berg/Berge (mountain or hill), Dahl/Dal (valley), Haugen/Haugan (hill or mound), Lie (side of a valley), Moen (meadow), or Rud (clearing).  Similarly, Swedish surnames include Lind/Lindberg (linden/lime + mountain), Berg/Bergkvist (mountain/mountain + twig), Alström/Ahlström (alder + stream), or Dahl/Dahlin (valley).  Read more HERE


As a genealogist, I enjoy the study of surnames and what they mean, and to what nationality they’re linked.  In genealogy research, I’ve been bemused by some of the names chosen centuries ago when families were forced to take a designated surname.  I am more familiar with our Dutch family names, many families forced to adopt permanent surnames by Napoleon if they didn’t already have one.  After occupying the Netherlands, on August 18, 1811, Napoleon required the hardy Dutch to register permanent surnames.  The stubborn Dutchmen that they were/are, you can find many interesting surnames among today’s Dutch if you delve into the meaning, including serious, humorous, place names, and occupational names. 


Apparently, the top 10 Dutch surnames  include:  DeJong/DeYonge (the Young), Jansen (Jan’s son, like the American Johnson), De Vries (the Frisian, or of Vriesland), Van De Berg/Van Den Berg/Van Der Berg (from the mountain), Van Dijk/Van Dyk/Dyke (residing near a dijk/dyk/dike), Bakker (a baker), Visser (means fisherman with variations including Vissers, Visscher and Visschers.  After emigration to America, this surname was often changed to Fisher, which my paternal grandfather’s uncle did); Smid/Smit/De Smit/Smidt/Smits (a blacksmith), Meijer/Meyer/Hofmeijer (a farmer who managed a farm/estate for the owner/landlord like the ancient feudal system.)


My paternal grandmother’s Vos of Zuid/South Holland province means fox.  My paternal grandfather’s Visscher (fisherman) family is from Groningen province, close to Germanic influence, and my husband’s Roorda (similar to the English Edward meaning famous guardian) is Frisian.  The first documented Roorda in Friesland province rode with Charlemagne, though I don’t know how my husband’s ancestors connect to him.  My mother-in-law’s family names include Van Der Heide (from the moor/heath), Van Den Berg (from the hill/mountain), and ten Kate (the cat).


Other common Dutch surnames include Boer (farmer), Buskirk (bush church, i.e. kirk/church in the woods), de Groot (the large or great), de Wit (the blond), Mulder (miller), Noteboom (nut/walnut tree), ten Boom (at/the tree or pole), Van Der Zee (from the sea), van Dorp (from the village) van Staalduinen (from the steel dune) – you get the idea!


As my long-time readers will recall, I’ve been enamored with all things Dutch having been born into a paternal full Dutch family.  Though my mother’s family had had little knowledge of their full ancestry until my in-depth research, it is interesting to note my mother’s paternal Swiss Dallenbach/Tillapaugh/German Kniskern and maternal Scots-Irish McNeill/German Ottman are overwhelmingly Dutch and German Palatine with Scots-Irish, English and French scattered amongst them.  That my mother’s parents each descend from one of the only two sons of a German Palatine widow is also among my treasured ancestral findings.

I extracted a number of Dutch surnames from Wikipediaparticularly since early New York was settled predominantly by the Dutch in New Netherlands.  Think about the names below, sound them out using your best phonics, and you’ll hear names and terms in use today, many of which are familiar to me from my grandparents and their friends. 

Baas – The Boss

Bakker – Baker

Beek, van – From the brook

Bos – Forest

Berg, van der/den – From the cliff, mountain

Berkenbosch- birch wood, a grove of birch trees

Boer, de – the Farmer

Boogaard – from the orchard, Americanized as Bogart

Boor, van der – possibly of the same French root as Boer – farmer or simple person, aka boorish

Bouwman – mason, construction worker

Brouwer – Brewer

Bruin, de (Bruijn, de) – brown

Buskirk, van – literally bush church, or church in the woods

Cornelissen – son of Cornelis/Cornelius

Dekker – from the verb dekken or to cover as in covering roof tops (compare English "Thatcher")

Dijk, Deijck, van – From the dike

Dijkstra  – From the dike

Graaf, de – The count/earl

Heide, van der – from the heath

Hendriks, Hendriksen, Hendrix – Henry's son

Heuvel, van den – From the hill, mound

Kuiper, Cuyper, Kuyper, de – the Cooper

Leeuwen, van – From Leeuwen/Leuven; Levi

Jaager, de – the Hunter

Jansen, Janssen – Jan's son (compare Johnson)

Jong, de – the Junior

Koning, Koningh, de – the King

Lange, de – the long/the tall

Linden, van der – from the Linden (type of tree)

Meijer, Meyer – Bailiff or steward

Meer, van der – From the lake

Molen, van der – from the Mill

Mulder, Molenaar – Miller

Maarschalkerweerd – Keeper of the horses (compare English marshal)

Peters or Pieters – Peter's son

Prins – Prince

Ruis, Ruys, Ruisch, Ruysch – the sound of wind or water (surname common with millers).

Rynsburger – inhabitant of Rijnsburg

Smit, Smits – Smith

Teuling – Toll taker

Timmerman – Carpenter (timber man)

Tuinstra – From the Garden

Visser – Fisher [my ancestral Visscher – Fisherman (from Groningen, near Germanic influence)]

Vliet, van – From the vliet (type of water)

Vries, de – from Friesland/Frisian

Vos – Fox

Westhuizen, van der – from the houses located in the west

Willems, Willemsen – William's son

Wit, de – White (= the blond)


But, back to our preoccupation with occupational surnames, particularly old English surnames.   Brewster was a woman brewer of alcoholic beverages, like beer.  Chapman, old English for ceapmann, was a merchant or salesman.  A cooper made wooden barrels or tubs with innumerable uses.  A miller owned or worked in a mill, especially noted early on for grinding grain into flour.  A smith was a blacksmith, hammering out iron objects heated in the fire.  A tanner cured hides, while a currier (remember the artwork of Currier and Ives?) removed the hair from the hide, readying it to be made into leather goods.  An experienced tailor could sew the finest outfits just by taking your measurements.  A wright was a skilled woodworker, the word replaced by carpenter in the 11th century.  A prefix designated other skills a wright might be proficient in – i.e. a shipwright built ships, a wheelwright made and repaired wooden wheels, a millwright set up machinery, and a wainwright was a wagon maker.


The name Cooper is Anglo-Saxon, stemming from the original Latin word cupa, Middle Dutch kuiper, German kuper, and anglicized in England during the 8th century.  Surnames were also necessary when governments implemented a personal tax, or the Poll Tax as it was known in England.  Over the centuries, many surnames have changed spellings, some dramatically so, often due to one’s ability to spell, or lack thereof.  This fact alone is key when researching your ancestors.


A cooper was a skilled craftsman who worked with a variety of carpentry tools.  He made and shaped wooden staves with broadaxes, planes and drawknives to form the rounded vessel, which in turn was held together by wooden or metal hoops/rings around the exterior.  He then fashioned wooden lids or barrelheads to fit tightly.  A cooper played a vital role within a community.  His barrels, buckets, butter churns, casks, firkins, hogsheads, kegs and tubs, etc. were needed to hold milk, water and a whole range of staples/food supplies, dry food goods, gunpowder, and other liquids like beer and wine.  The products of a cooper’s trade were generally known as cooperage, or individually a piece of cooperage. 


A dry or slack cooper made wooden containers for dry goods including grains, nails, tobacco, fruits and vegetables.  A dry-tight cooper’s casks kept moisture out, enabling gunpowder and flour to be preserved.  A white cooper made the pails, buckets, dippers, butter churns and tubs to hold liquids, but these were not used for shipping.  These containers used straight staves, or wood that was not bent.  The wet or tight cooper made barrels and casks in which liquids, including beer and wine, could be stored and preserved, and later transported.  Certain woods have long been used in wine barrels to give a distinctive flavor enhancement to wine and liquors.


When we think of a miller, one who owned or worked in a mill, we usually envision a gristmill in an idyllic setting by a flowing stream and peaceful pond.  The water flowed over the wooden “paddle wheel” which turned the shaft/gears which turned the millstone.  A miller is among the oldest professions, a vital link within the community since everyone needed his product.  Millers took grain and ground it finely between two flat millstones to make flour, the staple of breads, biscuits, pastries and pasta.  Almost every community had its own mill for the convenience of local farmers transporting their grain.  The miller’s income often stemmed from a “miller’s toll,” a certain percentage of the grain he had milled rather than a monetary fee. 


Wikipedia describes the milling process well:  “The millstones themselves turn at around 120 rpm.  They are laid one on top of the other.  The bottom stone, called the bed, is fixed to the floor, while the top stone, the runner, is mounted on a separate spindle, driven by the main shaft.  A wheel, or stone nut, connects the runner's spindle to the main shaft, and this can be moved out of the way to disconnect the stone and stop it from turning, leaving the main shaft turning to drive other machinery.  This might include driving a mechanical sieve to refine the flour or turning a wooden drum to wind up a chain used to hoist sacks of grain to the top of the mill.  The distance between the stones can be varied to produce the grade of flour required; moving the stones closer together produces finer flour.”


Smith, another common old English surname of the Anglo-Saxon era, or the German smithaz or Schmidt, originates from workers who were skilled in working with metal, such as a blacksmith or metalsmith.  They made wrought iron or steel items by forging - the process of heating the metal in a fire until it is soft enough to be hammered, bent or cut to make gates, railings, agricultural implements, tools, household items, and weapons, etc.  Typically, a blacksmith made horseshoes while a farrier shod the horse, though often their skills were interchangeable.  A whitesmith/tinsmith or tinker worked with tin, typically making useful household items.  Working with a lighter metal, he did not need the higher temperatures of a blacksmith’s fire.  The skills of both a silversmith and goldsmith are self-explanatory. 


Tanner is also an ancient Anglo-Saxon surname taken by those employed in the process of tanning animal hides/skins.  It is thought to be of Celtic origin, a word for the oak tree and its bark which was used for tanning.  A tanner held an important skill during the medieval era when leather was used for many common but necessary items including buckets, clothing, shoes, harness and saddles, and even armor for battle.  Tannin (from the German word “tanna” for oak or fir, i.e. Tannenbaum) is the chemical residue from oak tree bark used to treat the animal hides, also producing the coloring during the process.


The Wikipedia article in my research includes a photo entitled “Peeling bark for the tannery in Prattsville, New York during the 1840s, when it was the largest in the world.”  Here, men are shown removing strips of bark from the base of trees in the forest.  Oak and hemlock were the trees of choice.  After peeling the bark off, the trees were sawn into firewood or lumber.  The bark was set out to dry, then ground down and put into vats of water, and left to leach out the tannic acid necessary for tanning hides.  Many of those early virgin forests were thus logged bare for the tanning products.


Some of the tools used in the process of tanning include:

Fleshing knife – for removing the flesh from an animal skin/hide

Unhairing knife – for removing the animal hair on the skin/hide

Sleeker – for smoothing the skin/hide

Buffer – for shining the animal's skin/hide

Stone mill - driven by horses, used for grinding oak-tree bark which is used during tanning.


In the old days, tanning was an odiferous trade, typically performed by the poor on the outer edges of town.  Even today, if the old-fashioned methods are used, tanneries emit foul odors and shops are set up well away from populated areas of town.  The process is a lost art, one I found fascinating to read about, even if yucky.  Again, Wikipedia gives an apt description of the processes.  There may be some within our communities who trap and tan the animal hides to make their own leather.  If so, they likely use a modern chemical process which I saw described online.  But, for the purpose of the history of this interesting old skill, we’ll describe the ancient process.


When the skins/hides arrived at the tanner’s shack, they were dry, stiff and filthy.  The first step was to soak them in salt water for curing to help prevent bacterial decay.  The soaking steps also helped to clean and soften the hides.  The hides were next treated with a layer of lime, and then pounded and scoured to remove any remaining flesh and fat.  The hair needed to be removed, either by soaking in urine, coating it with a lime mixture, or letting the skin putrify for a few months before dipping it into another salt solution.  With the hair loosened, the tanner could more easily scrape the hair fibers off with the unhairing knife. 


After the hair had been removed, either animal brains, manure/dung or urine was pounded or rubbed into the skin.  The ancient tanner often used his bare feet to knead the skins in dung water for a few hours.  Centuries ago, tanners hired children to collect dung and urine from chamber pots set out on street corners for such a purpose.  Plant juices or bone marrow, urine and rotted brains were used by many African tribes to make soft leather.  The ancient Hebrews used oak bark, Egyptians used Babul pods, and the Arabs used barks and roots.  Japanese preferred rapeseed (a flowering plant) and safflower oils.  Eskimos used fish oil, while Native Americans would smoke the hides to tan them.  Mud and alum were used by the ancient Chinese, as did the Assyrians, Babylonians, Phoenicians, Indians, and Greeks.


Softening the hide can be done by further pounding or rubbing it with sticks or heavy ropes, or by pulling it from the edges with another person to stretch it out.  After putting the hide through all these processes, it would be pliable and to ready to use in making various items.   I remember going with my father as an early teen to a leather shop in Newark, NJ where he picked out leather of various shades, thickness and flexibility, including alligator hide.  Using a variety of tools to create designs, he made beautiful purses for my mother and others in the family.  I still have a small one he made when I was about 5. 


The ancients took leftover leather scraps from their projects and put them into a vat with water to rot.  After several months, this mixture was boiled down to make hide glue.  Nothing was wasted!


A cooper, blacksmith, tailor or wheelwright can often be found in living history museums like those I have visited:  Bement-Billings Museum in Newark Valley, NY; the Farmers’ Museum in Cooperstown, NY; Genesee Country Village Museum in Mumford, NY; and Old Sturbridge Village in Sturbridge, Massachusetts, just to name a few as there are so many other museums to visit.


Linda Roorda

A Scottish castle on the Hudson?  Drawn to the hazy beauty of this photo, I was mesmerized by the castle’s classic lines… so reminiscent of centuries-old castles scattered around the British and Scottish moors and highlands, intrigued to know it sat upon American soil.  After researching and naming my Mom’s maternal Scots-Irish, I am proud to say that they, too, hold a special place in my heart amongst all my Dutch ancestors.



Screen Shot 2018-04-21 at 9.52.49 AM.png


Photo by Will Van Dorp, Tugster


Think back with me to an earlier day when the adventurous Europeans followed Henry Hudson’s momentous sail north on a river now bearing his name.  It was an era of exploration, a prosperous time for the Dutch and their friends as they established a considerable presence in the settling of Nieuw Nederlands… and traveled freely up and down the North River with its invitingly peaceful, and beautiful, sylvan surroundings.


Now envision a fairy-tale castle of Scottish design built upon a solid rock foundation, entirely surrounded by a pristine and placid river as its moat.  At times though, depending on the season and storm, the waters become riled and treacherous, perhaps evoking images of an ancient castle set upon the lonely and stormy seacoast of bonnie Scotland.  Such a sighting embodies the ambiance of castle life in the Middle Ages…  a time of chivalry when knights in shining armor went out to battle, bravely protecting their sovereign and his empire, returning home with honor to win the heart of a certain fair young maiden…


Roughly 50 miles north of New York City lies an island comprising about 5-1/2 or 6-1/2 acres (depending on source) along the eastern shore of the Hudson River as you head north.  Pollepel Island is a lush growth of trees, bushes, flowers and gardens, clamoring vines, weeds, bugs, ticks, snakes, and rocky ground.  Not surprisingly, the hardy Dutch left their influence on our language and place names all throughout the new world in both New Amsterdam proper and environs of the greater New Netherlands.  Naturally this little island, Pollepel (i.e. Dutch for ladle), was named by these hardy early settlers, situated in an area designated as the “Northern Gate” of the Hudson River’s Highlands.  Just like in the Old Country, the island’s natural harbor provides the perfect setting for a castle… Bannerman’s Island Arsenal, to be exact.  Arsenal, you ask?  Yes, a place where knights could well have donned shining armor for their king and perched behind the battlements with all manner of arms.


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Photo by Will Van Dorp, Tugster,


Long before there was a castle of dreamy old-world architecture, it was said that Native Americans refused to take up residence on this mound of rock.  Believing the island to be haunted, the Indians rarely dared set foot upon it in daylight, if at all, while their enemies flaunted that fact by seeking refuge on the rocky shore…


The hardy mariners who once sailed Hudson’s North River left a legacy of legends and tales of this little island.  Washington Irving of Tarrytown, told with skillful imagination the story of “The Storm Ship”,  also known as the “Flying Dutchman”.  Fear of goblins who dwelt on Pollepel Island was as real as that of their leader, the Heer of Dunderburgh.  It was well known that Dunderburgh controlled the winds, those furies which provoked the waters, making safe passage of the Highlands a thing to be envied.  With the sinking of the famed “Flying Dutchman” during an especially severe storm, the captain and crew found themselves forever doomed.  And, if you should ever find yourself traveling the river near Pollepel in such a storm, listen closely… for in the howling of the winds which whip the sails, you just might hear the captain and his sailors calling for help.


Another legend which early Dutch sailors spoke about was that of Polly Pell, a beautiful young lady rescued from the river’s treacherous ice.  Romantically saved from drowning by the quick wit and arms of her beau, she married her rescuer.  Such are the dreams of the romantically inclined…


From a more practical perspective, Gen. George Washington used the strategically placed Pollepel Island during the American Revolution in an effort to prevent British ships from sailing north.  “Chevaux de frise” were made of large logs with protruding iron spikes which, when sunk upright in the river, were intended to damage ships’ hulls and stop the British from passing through.  However, these particular obstructions, set up between the island and Plum Point on the opposite shore, did not deter the resourceful British.  They simply sailed with ease past the sunken deterrents in flat-bottomed boats.  Washington also planned to establish a military garrison for prisoners-of-war on Pollepel Island, but there is no proof extant that his idea was ever implemented.


According to Jane Bannerman (granddaughter-in-law of the castle’s builder) in “Pollepel - An Island Steeped in History”, the island had just five owners since the American Revolution era:  “William Van Wyck of Fishkill, Mary G. Taft of Cornwall, Francis Bannerman VI of Brooklyn, and The Jackson Hole Preserve (Rockefeller Foundation) which donated the island to the people of the State of New York (Hudson Highlands State Park, Taconic Region, New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation).”


Francis (Frank) Bannerman VI, the island’s third owner, was born March 24, 1851 in Dundee, Scotland.  His ancestor was the first to bear the honored name of Bannerman seven centuries ago.  At Bannockburn in 1314, Stirling Castle was held by the English King, Edward II.  Besieged by the Scottish army, however, Edward II’s well-trained troops were ultimately defeated in a brutal battle.  Less than half the size of England’s army, the successful brave Scotsmen were commanded by the formidable Robert the Bruce, King of Scots.  During that battle, Francis VI’s ancestor rescued their Clan Macdonald’s pennant from destruction.  In reward, Robert the Bruce is said to have torn a streamer from the Royal ensign and bestowed upon Francis’s ancestor the honor of “bannerman,” the auspicious beginning of the family name.


Fast forward a few centuries and, interestingly, we learn that two years after the February 8, 1690 Schenectady (New York) massacre by the French and Indians, there was a similar massacre in Scotland.  Barely escaping the Feb 13, 1692 massacre of the Clan Macdonald at Glencoe in the Scottish Highlands by the Campbells, Francis Bannerman I and others sailed to Ireland.  With the family settling in Antrim for the next 150 years or so, it was not until 1845 that Francis Bannerman V returned his branch of the family’s presence to Dundee, Scotland.  There, Francis VI was born into this distinguished family.  When but a lad of 3 years, his father brought the family across the pond to America’s shores in 1854.  Settling in Brooklyn by 1856, the Bannerman family has remained with a well-respected presence.


Francis V earned a living by reselling items in the Brooklyn Navy Yard which he’d obtained cheaply at auctions.  A few years later, on joining the Union efforts in the Civil War, his 10-year-old son, Francis VI, left school to help support the family.  Searching for scrap items after his hours in a lawyer’s office, young Frank VI also sold newspapers to mariners on ships docked nearby.  In the evenings, he trolled or dragged local rivers and searched the streets and alleys, ever on the lookout for profitable scrap items, chains, and other odds and ends, even sections of rope, all eagerly bought by local junkmen. 


Returning from war an injured man, Francis V saw how successful his son had become with his scrap business.  By realizing that items he sold held more value than ordinary junk, young Frank had made good money.  To handle the growing accumulations of items his son had collected, and the military surplus in 1865 purchased at the close of the Civil War, Bannerman’s storehouse was set up on Little Street.  Next, a ship-chandlery shop was established on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn.  Returning to school with his father at home, young Francis received a scholarship to Cornell University.  However, owing to his father’s disability, family loyalty won out and he declined to pursue the halls of higher education in order to help run the family business.


In 1872, 21-year-old Francis VI took a business trip to Europe.  Visiting his grandmother in Ulster, Ireland, he met Helen Boyce whom he married June 8, 1872 in Ballymena.  Two of their sons, Francis VII and David Boyce, eventually joined their father in the family business.  A third son, Walter Bruce, took a different path by earning his medical degree.  Sadly, their only daughter died as an infant.  Charles, grandson of Francis VI, married Jane Campbell, a descendant of the ancient Campbells who had attempted to destroy the Macdonald clan (from which massacre Francis I had escaped).  Their marriage showed love was the impetus to rise above the ancient rivalry between the families, reminiscent of the Appalachian’s storied Hatfields and McCoys. 


Considered the “Father of the Army-Navy Store”, Frank Bannerman VI opened a huge block-long store on Broadway by 1897.  Here, his large building of several floors housed untold numbers of military supplies, munitions and uniforms from all around the world.  Francis/Frank was the go-to man in equipping soldiers for the Spanish-American War.  At that war’s end, the company bought arms from the Spanish government and most of the weapons which the American military had captured from the Spanish.  Printing a 300-400 page mail order catalog from the late 19th century through the mid-1960s, collectors found a large array of military surplus and antiquities.  As city laws limited Bannerman’s ability to retain his massive holdings within the city proper, a larger facility was sought to store their collection of munitions.  


As he relaxed by canoeing the Hudson River around this time, David Bannerman observed an inconspicuous little island.  Finding Pollepel Island perfectly suited to their needs, his father, Frank VI, approached the Taft family and purchased the island in 1900.  Designing a Scottish-style castle to honor the family’s legacy, they built an arsenal to store their vast munitions supplies, with a smaller castle providing a family residence.  On the side of the castle facing the Hudson River, “Bannerman’s Island Arsenal” is embedded in the castle façade, clearly informing all passersby of its purpose to this day.


As the largest collector of munitions in the world, buying and selling to many nations, including Japan during the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905,and to private citizens like you and me, even Buffalo Bill Cody, military memorabilia collectors, theatrical establishments, and artists needing props, Mr. Francis Bannerman VI held an in-depth knowledge of the military supplies and ordnance in his possession.  But, not being a man of greed, he refused to arm revolutionaries and returned their money on learning their intention.  At the opening of World War I, he reportedly shipped 8,000 saddles to the French Army and delivered thousands of rifles and ammunition to the British at no cost. 


Though extremely successful selling munitions, Francis/Frank Bannerman VI considered himself a kind and generous man, “a man of peace”.  It was his intention that such a vast collection of arms as his would eventually be considered “The Museum of the Lost Arts.”  Energetic and devoted to his church and public service, he also taught a boys’ Sunday School class.  He enjoyed bringing friends to the island to experience his family’s hospitality.  His wife, Helen, who loved to garden, had paths and terraces constructed throughout the property.  Even today, tour guides point out the many flowers and shrubs she planted which have survived the decades, the beauty of which enhance the antiquity of the castle ruins.


With the death of Francis Bannerman VI on November 26, 1918 at age 64, building on the island stopped and many setbacks seemed to befall his estate.  Two years later, an explosion of 200 tons of stored shells and powder destroyed part of the castleWith State and federal laws controlling the sale of munitions to civilians, sales began to plunge for Bannerman’s Arsenal.  Family continued to reside in the smaller castle on the island into the 1930s; but, for the sake of their customers, sold their goods more conveniently from a warehouse in Blue Point, Long Island into the 1970s.  In 1950, a pall fell over the island and its castle when the ferry “Pollepel” (named for the island it served) sank in a storm.  Then, when the island’s caretaker retired in 1957, Bannerman’s island remained abandoned and untended for years. 


Frank VI’s grandson, Charles Bannerman, wisely predicted in 1962 that “No one can tell what associations and incidents will involve the island in the future.  Time, the elements, and maybe even the goblins of the island will take their toll of some of the turrets and towers, and perhaps eventually the castle itself, but the little island will always have its place in history and in legend and will be forever a jewel in its Hudson Highland setting.”


Ultimately, New York State bought the island and its buildings in 1967 after all military supplies had been removed, and tours of the island and castle commenced in 1968.  Unfortunately, a devasting fire on August 8, 1969 destroyed the Arsenal along with its walls, floors and roofs making the island unsafe, and it was closed to the public.  Though the castle now sits in ruins, much of the exterior walls are still standing, accented with climbing ivy, and held up in the weakest sections by supports.  Since virtually all interior floors and walls were destroyed by fire, “vandalism, trespass, neglect and decay” have continued taking their toll over the decades. 


In more recent years, the island once again made headlines with a tragic storyOn April 19, 2015, Angelika Graswald and her fiancée, Vincent Viafore, kayaked to Bannerman’s Castle Island.  Attempting to return from their outing in rough waters, Viafore’s kayak took on water and overturned, resulting in his drowning.  Graswald, charged with Viafore’s murder, admitted to removing the drain plug.  Arraigned in Goshen, Orange County, NY, a plea deal was later reached before the case went to trial.  Pleading guilty to a lesser charge of criminally negligent homicide, she was released from prison not long after, having duly served the time of her reduced sentence.


Few people know and remember “Bannerman’s Island” during its glorious past like Jane Bannerman (wife of Charles, Francis VI’s grandson).  Assisting The Bannerman’s Castle Trust and the Taconic Park Commission to repair the buildings, Jane has noted, “…it all comes down to money, and if they don’t hurry up, it’ll all fall down.  Every winter brings more destruction.”  Unsafe conditions on and around the island are due to both underwater and land hazards, not to mention unstable castle walls.  Due to these conditions, it is advised you do not attempt to visit the island on your own.


The Bannerman’s Castle Trust has initiated “hard hat” tours along with other entertainment venues.  By making island visits possible, it is the Trust’s hope they will be able to restore the castle, smaller castle home, and gardens for the public to enjoy more fully.  In the interest of preserving the rich history of this Scottish Castle on a small island in the Hudson River, we hope The Bannermans’ Castle Trust is successful in its restoration endeavors.


Hudson River Cruises advertise a tour from Newburgh Landing: “Ruins of a 19th century castle on Bannerman’s Island can be seen on special guided history and walking tours departing from Newburgh Landing and Beacon.”  For information on 2-1/2 hour guided tours held May through October call:  845-220-2120 or 845-782-0685.


With my own maternal Scots-Irish McNeill and Caldwell heritage, I was intrigued by the photos of such an old-world castle built on a small, seemingly insignificant island.  The fairy-tale ambiance of this Scottish castle stands out, visible by boat and train, amidst the New Netherlands’ Dutch influence up and down the Hudson River.  I hope someday to take a guided tour on Pollepel Island and see Bannerman’s Castle; but, for now, the photos and articles will have to do. 


Many thanks to friend Will Van Dorp who initially piqued my interest by posting his photos and synopsis of the island, castle, and its environs on his blog, Tugster:

Hudson Downbound 18b, April 12, 2018 - Scroll down to photo of Bannerman’s Castle which prompted my story.

Landmarks, Bannerman’s Castle Arsenal, 2013

More Ghosts, photography of Bannerman Castle, 2007 


There is so much more in-depth reading and photography from many websites, but I referred to the following in my research:

Bannerman’s Island Arsenal

Bannerman Castle Trust

FRANCIS BANNERMAN, the noted merchant and authority on war weapons

Bannerman’s Castle: The Ultimate Army-Navy Store

Bannerman Island: A Mystery Island on the Hudson

Pollepel – An Island Steeped in History by Jane Bannerman

Pollepel Island: Private Fortress on the Hudson

Bannerman’s Island Arsenal, Historic Images – Old Photos/Postcards

Linda Roorda

As we conclude our discussion on how and where to begin your ancestry research with suggestions based on my experience, I thought it would be helpful to collect the online resources in one place.  The following is a list of some of the many online sources which I found most helpful. 


I also continue to stress that not all submitted family records on any given site are totally accurate.  Unintentional errors and misspellings in data creep in.  It is up to you to seek out and prove the accuracy of whatever data you find online about your ancestors.  Unless you know a book is truly accurate and can prove the author had sound documentation, do not take a published book as fact “just because it says so.”  That’s how I proved errors in a book that had been accepted as fact for decades as I noted previously.  The extra footwork involved can be extensive, but it’s worth every effort put forth to have solid documentation for your family’s ancestral heritage.


Ancestry.com – free 1880 census record; but, for an annual subscription fee, you get in-depth census records from 1790-1930, military records, city and national records, land records, international records, family trees, baptisms, marriages, death index records, etc.


Family Search - free website with 1880 census records, baptism, marriage records, death records, and submitted family data.  Books and documents on microfilm can be ordered and viewed at a Family History Center of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, locally as in Owego or Elmira.  They also have a free down-loadable Personal Ancestral File, PAF, which I have used, though I prefer the Family Tree Maker.


My Heritage – discover your roots in a free trial to a subscription-based genealogy compilation.  I have not used this site.


Olive Tree Genealogy - free old church/cemetery records, 1600s ships’ lists, records for New Netherland, Palatines, Mennonites, Loyalists, Native American, Military, and Canadian data, etc.  I found this website to be very helpful in my early research nearly 20 years ago.


RootsWeb – free source of records, county genweb sites, surname lists, e-mail lists, posted documentation for cemeteries, church records, family websites and more. Currently undergoing a full-site rebuilding, but worth checking out for sections as they come back up for use.


CyndisList - free listing of American and International records and resources – a great resource.


Vital Records – U.S. birth certificates, death records, and marriage licenses for a fee.


U.S. GenWeb – free County GenWeb sites with a lot of data to aid your research.


Three Rivers – free source for middle-eastern New York families in the Hudson, Mohawk, Schoharie river regions, family genealogies, books, etc. 


Sampubco - Wills from several states, but not all wills.  Fee charged for copies.  I purchased several wills from this website and was very pleased with the service.


National Archives and Records Administration –  Click on Veterans’ Service Records section to begin searching.  You will find military service records, pension records of veterans’ claims, draft registration records, and bounty land warrant application files and records available. Order forms are free, but you pay a fee to order copies of records. Well worth the cost.


NARA contact/forms – see various forms listed for National Archives Records Administration, government war records.  Obtain free forms from which to order military records including pre-Civil War full service records or pension application files (on NATF Form 85 and/or 86; forms are free).  Some list family members, others do not.  You will find a good amount of information in files re: a soldier’s service, enlistment, capture, discharge, death, etc.,; these records provide valuable documentation.


Soldiers and Sailors Database - Civil War Soldiers and Sailors Database for military records.


Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island Foundation - search passenger and ship manifest records free, or order quality record copies for a fee.  Ship manifest records are also found at Ancestry.com, a subscription resource.


New York Biographical and Genealogical Society – very trustworthy site with many online articles/records; they are working to put more records online; however, most are limited to membership in the Society.  The Steele Library in Elmira has the full set of the New York Genealogical and Biographical Record and the New England Genealogical Journal.  I can attest to the high quality of published research and records in both journals.  I used these journals in my research, with my documented research articles published in the NYGBR.  In order to publish, you must prove all of your statements with solid documentation.


Making of America, Cornell University – old books, magazines, newspapers online in searchable/readable format – worth wading through this free resource.


Higginson Book Company, Salem, Mass. - old maps, family surname genealogies, county/state historical books, published cemetery and church records, etc. Contact for free catalog; copies books/records obtained for a fee but worth it, from which I purchased a few books.


Olin Uris Library, Cornell University - Cornell University’s guide to research of their extensive holdings.  They note that, unfortunately, not all their genealogical books are kept in one section. 


Find-A-Grave - free resource of many gravestones around the United States.  Be careful of family notes – I found errors in a family of my close relatives; when I contacted the contributor who added notes tying my family to theirs by error, there was no response, no correction.


Tips on fraudulent lineages at:

Family Search Fraudulent Genealogies

Genealogy Today

Gustav Anjou, Fraudulent Genealogist


Genealogy.com - locating published genealogies

Genealogy Bank, Researching your Pilgrim Ancestry from the Mayflower


Again, locally, the Steele Library in Elmira   has an excellent genealogy section on the second floor to aid your research.  I spent many a Saturday morning searching through their collection for documentation on my ancestry data and can highly recommend it.  Cornell University also has a major genealogy library though I was afraid to go up on campus for a personal visit. 


And, last but not least, your local library can order books through the interlibrary loan system.  This was a tremendously helpful resource to me for out-of-county and out-of-state historical/genealogical books.  I could not have done it without these resources. 


I must also give credit to the many friends I made along my genealogical journey, some of whom proved to be distant cousins and have remained close friends.  We shared data, books, and a love for our ancestral families.


And now, I wish you every success as you search for your ancestors.  Enjoy the journey!

~ The End ~

Linda Roorda

There are many free genealogy websites which are a great resource for records and helpful family data, including RootsWeb.  This free site, part of the ancestry.com family, includes a “Getting Started” section with their “guide to tracing family trees.”  The latter has great tips on how to begin, a list of sources and where to find various records, and a list of various countries/ethnic groups.  Clicking on any of these hi-lited items will provide information on beginning your research. 


Unfortunately, in checking the RootsWeb site to update this article, I learned they’re in the process of making website repairs.  Feel free to check them out for their explanatory letter as some functions, like the Message Boards, are up and running while other functions will gradually return for usage.  However, most of what I reference here from their site is currently unavailable while they make repairs.


They have a section entitled “Searches.”  This includes surname listings you can peruse to see what might be out there.  My favorite section was the “U.S. Town/County Database.”  Here, I have found a wealth of information for vital records from churches and cemeteries, biographies, family lineages, and more.  Researching my early New York families often brought me to the Albany, Schenectady and Schoharie county genweb sites. 


The next section is labeled “Family Trees (World Connect).”  You can search family trees generously submitted by other researchers.  I did find errors in submitted family trees when I began my research, prompting my own research to document, write and publish my family articles.  For that reason, I tend to stay away from this section in seeking information on my ancestors.  I prefer to do as much footwork as I can on my own, albeit with guidance from friends who taught me as I learned along the way.  Submitted trees certainly can be entirely accurate; however, if used as a starting point with other online records, you can then seek sources to provide solid documentation and corroborative proof, i.e. church and cemetery records in reputable books or journals, census records, wills, etc.


The next section is “Mailing Lists.”  These lists are also invaluable.  I was formerly on an email list which provided discussions on various topics relating to the early settlers and records of the 1600s and 1700s in New Netherlands/New York.  It was a rewarding experience to reply to someone’s query by contributing data I have in a book of ancient Albany’s city and county records that was helpful to others. 


From RootsWeb , I had subscribed years ago to the Schoharie County email list.  That resource was where I saw the notice by a professor from Long Island who found an old photo in a Washington, D.C. antique shop.  The pencil writing on the back of the matting read, “First Tillapaugh Reunion July 1910…”  I replied that my mother’s two oldest brothers inherited that farm, and their sons continue to farm it today.  A reproduction of the photo is in the Dallenbach book of descendants which I own, so I was well aware of what the professor had found.  In fact, the house in the photo, built in the 1830s, is still very much in use today.  I was offered the opportunity to purchase the photo which, of course, I did, thus beginning my genealogy research in earnest in the late 1990s.


RootsWeb also includes a section for “Message Boards.”  Here, you can search your surname of interest, read other posts, and post your own query for information which I have also done.  Folks on these message boards have been very helpful.  This has also been a resource to meet extended relatives in various lines, which I have also done.  We have then shared our own researched and documented data with each other.  Several friendships were made this way, and they continue to be counted among my close friends today.


Other sections have even more options available including various surname websites, other tools and resources such as blank forms and charts, and hosted volunteer projects.  The latter includes books owned by folks who are willing to research them for information you might need from a particular book.  You may also find volunteers who are able to do local lookups at either cemeteries or historical societies for you.  When volunteers have helped by doing research footwork for me, I felt it appropriate to pay their expenses, a much-appreciated gift. 


You can also submit your FamilyTreeMaker data to RootsWeb.  Instead, of doing that, I submitted a McNeill descendancy outline with names and dates of birth to the Schoharie County Genweb site.  It is also common courtesy not to submit names of any living relatives, or those born within the past 75-100 years out of respect for privacy.


Another free online source of cross-referenced data is the comprehensive CyndisList The Categories section provides a list of resources, including American state and government as well as international resources.  There is an Adoption section to help find orphans and living people, message boards, and volunteers to assist your search.  A section entitled Free Stuff includes charts and forms, translation tools, online databases to search, volunteer lookups, surname family associations and newsletters, etc. 


Sections you might not have thought about include 1) Migration Routes, Roads and Trails, 2) Canals, Rivers and Waterways, and 3) Immigration and Naturalization.  There are sections entitled Heraldry, Hit a Brick Wall?, and Ships & Passenger Lists.  The Mailing Lists are great for asking questions when you’re stumped, and for connecting with researchers working on the same lines.  There are also sites to purchase items, and free trials to search various genealogy websites before paying their site subscription fee.


Ancestry.com has some free data, like the 1880 Federal Census records, but the best records are obtained using subscription-based entrance.  Here, you will find tabs for Home, Trees, Search, DNA, Help, and Extras.  It is an invaluable resource.


Perhaps your ancestors came through Ellis Island.  Search The Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation   to find your ancestors and the ship on which they sailed.  A ship’s manifest lists the passengers, their age, name of the ship, port, date of departure, occupation, nearest relative in their country of origin, and their sponsor in the U.S.  I found information for my husband’s paternal grandfather’s family when they emigrated from Holland in the early 1920s.  Some went first to North Dakota before settling in northern New Jersey as dairy farmers while others settled right away in northern New Jersey and Massachusetts to work in the textile mills.   


I also found records at the Ellis Island website for my father’s families which emigrated from the Netherlands.  Like many families, both of my father’s grandfathers came through Ellis Island, each with their oldest son – my dad’s paternal grandfather in November 1922, and his maternal grandfather in September 1923.  They settled in and around Kalamazoo, Michigan among other Dutch.  When they earned enough money, they sent for the rest of their family.  My paternal grandfather emigrated from Uithuizermeeden, Groningen at age 15 in July 1923 with his mother and siblings through Ellis Island. 


However, my dad’s maternal grandfather was determined his wife and children would not go through the rigors of steerage and Ellis Island.  Instead, he sent money back home to them in Rotterdam for second-class tickets.  Decades ago, my grandmother told me only a little about their sailing on the S. S. Rotterdam to Hoboken, New Jersey.  Research showed the ship came into a New York City port in January 1926, with the ship’s manifest listing my grandmother’s family.  Unfortunately, I didn’t ask more questions.  She told me that a Dutchman, who made a living helping immigrants, met my great-grandmother and her children (my grandmother was age 15), and took them to his home in Hoboken, New Jersey.  He fed them, put them up overnight, and the next morning put them on the right train to Michigan with lunches in hand.  There, my great-grandmother was reunited with her husband, and my grandmother and her siblings with their father and oldest brother.  How exciting that must have been!


My grandparents married in 1931 and lived in Kalamazoo, Michigan.  With the Great Depression, my grandfather and his father lost everything as building contractors.  They removed to another Dutch enclave in Clifton, New Jersey where my grandfather became a door-to-door salesman before again becoming a successful general contractor, with many a beautiful house or remodeling project to his credit.


You can purchase quality photo documentation of the ships your ancestors sailed on.  However, I simply printed the free online photo of the ships on which my ancestors sailed, along with each respective ship’s manifest for documentation.  I used both Ancestry.com and the Ellis Island websites to obtain records.


For steerage immigrants, the Ellis Island experience included passing a medical and legal inspection.  If your papers were in order, and you were in reasonably good health, the inspection process typically lasted 3-5 hours.  The ship’s manifest log was used by inspectors to cross-examine each immigrant during the primary inspection.  Though Ellis Island has been called the “Island of Tears,” the vast majority of immigrants were treated respectfully and allowed to enter America to begin their new life.  However, about two percent of immigrants were denied entry.  Typically, if you were suspected of having a contagious illness, or if the inspector thought you might become a public burden, entrance to the U.S. was denied.  I can only imagine the pain it must have caused when one or more family members were told they had to go back to their native country. 


I am very appreciative of the efforts my many ancestors made to emigrate from their home country, to which none ever returned, of becoming American citizens, and of their hard work to provide a better way of life for their family.  By sharing bits of my ancestral heritage, of who they were and whence they came, I hope it has encouraged you to search for your ancestors, to find their place in the building of our great America, and thus to know the gift of your family heritage.


NEXT:  Genealogy Website Resource List

"Homespun Ancestors is written by Linda Roorda. To see more, visit her site HERE.







Linda Roorda

We previously briefly touched on the importance of your ancestor’s Last Will and Testament, an excellent source of family documentation.  Wills are filed at surrogate court or county clerk’s office along with estate records for those who died intestate (without a will), inventories of estates, letters of administration, and guardianships, etc. 


Some older wills may be found online at Sampubco Genealogy as posted by W. David Samuelson from whom you may purchase documents.  This site includes wills, guardianships, surrogate’s records/probate files, naturalizations, letters of administration, and cemetery listings.  Records are available for several states via alphabetical name search by county.  From my experience, mostly older wills are available, but not all of them.  I can, however, recommend this site as I purchased several ancestral wills more reasonably than from surrogate’s court or county clerk’s office.  However, it is still advisable to go to the appropriate office to search for and copy complete records, which I also did.


One drawback can be old style writing and language.  Having begun my secretarial career in an Owego law firm, researching and copying old deeds and wills in shorthand, I was familiar with most of the standard language.  After transcribing eighteenth and nineteenth century ancestral wills I’d purchased, I submitted several online to respective county genweb sites.  They provide an opportunity for future researchers to use this gift, a way to pay back the gifts others have freely placed online to aid in research.  It’s all about helping each other on the journey.


As for the old language of bequeathing one’s estate, I share excerpts in original format from the wills of a few of my ancestors – original spelling or misspelling retained. 


Henrich/Henry Kniskern, signed 1780, probated 1784:  “In the Name of  God Amen. I, Henrich Knieskern at Shoharry [Schoharie] in the County of Albany [before Albany became several counties] farmer being at present weak in Body but of Sound Mind and Memory… considering that it is appointed for us all once to Die do this Eight Day of May in the Year of Our Lord Christ One Thousand Seven Hundred and Eighty make and Publish this my Last will and Testament in manner and form following that is to Say I recommend my Soul unto God that gave & my body unto the Earth from whence it came to be decently Interred… I give and bequeath unto my eldest Son… five Pounds Lawful money of New York (I Mean and Understand good hard Silver Money) for his birth Right… it is my will and Ordre that my Wife… shall have her supporting and Maintainment yearly and Every Year for her Life Time of my Estate in Knieskerns Dorph… [Kniskernsdorf is a now-extinct hamlet established on the Schoharie Creek by my ancestor, Johann Peter Kniskern, the Listmaster of one of the original 1710 Palatine settlements on the Hudson River.]  …I Give unto my Two Sons… together Equally my farming utenciels and Tools as both or Two Waggons & Two Sleeds Ploughs and Harrows with all the Tackling and furniture thereof… axes hoes & other Implements of husbandry… I Give to my Two Daughters, as bed Goods, Pewter Goods, Iron pots, Cooper goods & other goods… I give to my Two Sons… Equally my Loom and all & Every articles that belongs to Weavers…”


Adam Dingman, a prosperous freeholder of Kinderhook and Albany, wrote “...know all men that in the year seventeen hundred and twenty and twenty-one, the twenty-first day of January, in the seventh year of the reign of our sovereign lord, King George, I, Adam Dingeman, born at Haerlem, Holland, sick and weak of body, but having the perfect use of my senses…”  Unfortunately, he did not name his children from whom I have proven descendancy.


George Hutton, son of Lt. Timothy Hutton, listed all children, with daughters by their married names, a very helpful will.  An interesting inventory with values was attached to his wife Elizabeth’s will from 1845.  Numerous items were listed, including “1 feather bed $7.25, 1 blue and white spread $4.00, 1 straw bed tick $.25, 1 brown calico dress $.37, 1 black cashmere shall $.75, 1 pr morocco shoes $.50, 1 rocking chair $1.00.”


Other wills bequeath hereditaments (one of my favorite words), i.e. land, crops, tools, animals.  A McNeill family will “allows” an unmarried sister to use half of the house for life.  And an inventory made in 1758 for the estate of John McNeill, an apparently wealthy mariner (father of John C. McNeill), includes “1 Jacket of Cut Vellvet & 1 pair of Black Vallvet Britches, 1 paire of Lether Buckskin Britches, 1 Great Coat of Davinshire Carsey, 1 fine linnin Sheet x3 coarse ones, 1 45 weight of fetther, 1 paire of carved Shew buckells & knee buckells of silver, 1 paire Sleve buttons of gold, 2 Small Bibells w/one Silver clasped, 1 book called fishers Arithmitick, 1 seet of Harrow teeth, 1 Seet of plow Irons.” 


Old documents do make fascinating reads! 


COMING NEXT:  Genealogy Websites

Original blog post at: Homespun Ancestors - Your Family Tree #10

Linda Roorda

Anything but a boring read, military records are another invaluable source of documentation.  The first step is to determine when and where your ancestor served.  Often clues to an ancestor’s military service are found in family stories, old photos, death records and obituaries, grave markers and/or cemetery records, local town histories, and other family records or correspondence.


Many military records are available at Ancestry.com.  You will find draft registration cards for WW I and WW II, enlistment and service records, soldier and prisoner lists, casualty lists, pension records, etc.  In searching Ancestry’s records for this article, I found the Revolutionary War pension application file for my ancestor, John C. McNeill.  I had purchased the complete file several years ago through the national archives at NARA.gov.  So much more data has been placed online at repositories like Ancestry.com than was available when I began researching in the late 1990s. 


Search for records at the website for National Archives.  Click on the Veterans’ Service Records section to begin.  You will find military service records, pension records of veterans’ claims, draft registration records, and bounty land warrant application files and records available.  I found the WWII enlistment records at both Ancestry and NARA websites for two of my paternal grandfather’s brothers.  They had served in Europe and the South Pacific.  NARA’s website allows you to download free forms in order to purchase the full military records which may not be available elsewhere.


Military records can provide a good deal of genealogical and historical data about an ancestor.  The various records may include date of birth, birthplace, age, date of enlistment, occupation, names of immediate family members, and service records listing battles fought, capture, discharge, death, etc. 


However, bear in mind that military records may not include all data you seek.  My John C. McNeill did not note a date of birth or age in his Rev War pension application affidavit, and stated only that he had “nine children…5 sons and 4 daughters”, without listing any of their names.  Talk about frustration!  However, Jesse McNeill, my ancestor, verified in his signed affidavit that he was a son of John and that was key evidence.  Thankfully, John’s wife, Hannah, noted their marriage date, town, name of the Justice of the Peace who married them, and her sister’s name in her affidavit when applying for her widow’s pension.


With military records, you can take a little data and round it out with further research.  My John C. McNeill answered the call of fellow patriots to serve with the New Hampshire Line at Bunker Hill (or Breed’s Hill) in June 1775.  He was a Sergeant under Captain Daniel Wilkins in Colonel Timothy Bedel’s regiment of rangers, in charge of pasturing cattle to feed the men.  In 1776, Bedel’s regiment was ordered to join the Northern Continental Army in New York to reinforce the military presence in Canada.


McNeill’s pension file affidavits note capture at The Cedars, a fort west of Montreal on the St. Lawrence River, where they were plundered of all possessions.  They were taken to an island and left naked, without shelter and scant rations for eight days.  At The Cedars, “Bedel left the fort, either [to]… seek reinforcements or convey intelligence.  The command devolved on Major Isaac Butterfield… who on the 19th of May [1776] disgracefully surrendered his force of about four hundred men to the British and Indians [who were] about five hundred in number.”  (History of Goffstown [N.H.] by George Plumer Hadley, page 124.)


Morris Commager’s “The Spirit of Seventy-Six” (pgs. 212-220) provides further corroboration of this capture with many injured, killed, taken prisoner, or dying of disease.  McNeill was among survivors exchanged and returned in a cartel between the British Captain George Foster and American Brigadier General Benedict Arnold.  McNeill then served out his military enlistment at Saratoga, NY.  McNeill’s cousin and friends sign an affidavit in his pension application file stating they survived the ordeal with him, celebrating their release annually thereafter.


Another excellent source, a great read which confirmed the information I had on Bedel’s New York Regiment, is found in “Benedict Arnold’s Navy:  The Ragtag Fleet that lost the Battle of Lake Champlain but Won the American Revolution” by James Nelson, 2006, The McGraw-Hill Companies. 


I further assumed that, having served in New York for a time, McNeill later sought fertile land in what historians call the “Breadbasket of the American Revolution” – Schoharie County, New York.  After settling in my mother’s home town of Carlisle, Schoharie County, New York in the mid-1790s, one of his neighbors, and likely good friend, was Thomas Machin, whose farmland I have seen on a side road just into Montgomery County and very near Schoharie County.


Machin “supervised the making and laying of The Great Chain across the Hudson River near West Point.”  “W. Thomas Machin, Engineer, Washington’s Staff, Founding Father of Masonry in Schoharie County…Member Boston Tea Party; 1744-1816.”  (Personal view of two New York State plaques commemorating Machin at Carlisle Rural Cemetery, Carlisle, Schoharie County, NY, just a short distance up the road from where my mother grew up.)  However, Machin was not likely to have been part of the Boston Tea Party per my additional research.  Living in close proximity to each other, I am sure there must have been a good friendship between the two military men and their families – Machin’s grandson, James Daniel Machin, married John C. McNeill’s granddaughter, Lucy Jane/Jeanette McNeill, in 1852.


There is so much to be gleaned from in-depth research of ancestors, learning about their lives, extended family, and the historical era in which they lived!


COMING NEXT:  Last Will and Testament.

Original blog post at: Homespun Ancestors

Linda Roorda

As we noted previously, studying census records plays another key role in searching for ancestors.  Census records track families as they grow, move to new frontiers, into the cities, or perhaps just stay put on the family farm with family members scattered within walking distance nearby.


Study the old handwriting, compare unknown names or words to letters and words which you clearly know.  But, know that the old fancy cursive is different from what we’re familiar with in today’s handwriting.  I became familiar with it when researching and copying old deeds as a young secretary years ago, learning the old language of legal documents in the process.


I use two methods for keeping census records – one is to write all data on 4x6 lined index cards, and the other is using blank 8x10 census forms.  I eventually acquired several hundred index cards filed alphabetically in a handy shoebox.  I find them easier to refer to than the large census forms which, admittedly, are the more accurate.  The large blank forms are also used as a guide to what data to include on index cards from each census. 


Before searching census records, you should also know they, too, may contain errors.  At times, the enumerator may have been given wrong information, or misspelled first and last names depending on his own abilities.  When copying data, be sure to include the way names were misspelled, along with the known correction.


For example, I tracked a McNeill descendant whose father had removed his family from Carlisle to Decatur, New York and later to the state of Maine.  I knew his daughter, Appolonia Livingston McNeill, by baptism record.  She married William Smyth(e) and lived in Bangor, Maine.  By census records, her unmarried sister, Sarah McNeil(l), lived with them.  I followed the Smyth(e) family in Bangor by census, and the family’s billiard hall by city business directory.  I could not locate Appolonia in the important 1900 census, assuming she died after 1880.  Searching for her sons, I was surprised to find Appolonia as a widow, listed on the 1900 census by her middle name as Livingston A. Smyth.  She then resides with her twin sons in Portland, Oregon where she dies and is buried per death record I purchased.  Wondering what brought them to the far side of the continent, I can only speculate that perhaps they later enjoyed Portland’s 1905 Lewis and Clark Exposition.  I have not had time nor funds to pursue further research on the family among Maine or Oregon records, though I did obtain a few free cemetery records online. 


Every ten years since 1790, our federal government has gathered a national census.  Very few records remain of the 1890 census as most were destroyed by fire and water damage in 1921.  In 1934, rather than make attempts to restore the balance of records, they were destroyed by the U. S. Department of Commerce despite a public outcry.   The 1890 census was different from previous with in-depth questions about each family member and Civil War service, and would have been invaluable to researchers!


State censuses are equally as important.  Taken randomly, they are a little-known or seldom-used resource.  Typically collected by states every ten years, in years ending in “5,” New York did so in 1790, 1825 through 1875, 1892, 1905, 1915, and 1925. 


For privacy reasons, census records are not available to the public until 70 or so years later, the 1940 census being released in April 2012.  Records available to the public from 1790 through 1940 are found at a county clerk’s office, online by subscription at Ancestry.com, on microfilm through the Family History Center of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, with some census records transcribed and placed online at county genweb sites.  As a way to pay back other generous contributors, I transcribed the 1810 census for Carlisle, Schoharie County, New York.  I’ve wanted to do more, but have not had time to go back and transcribe additional census records for online usage. And that was back when I had the slow dial-up internet, not my fast click’n-go high speed!


Initial census records provide limited data.  The 1790 census includes city, county, state, page, date, name of head of household, males under and over age 16, free white females, all other free persons, and slaves.  


The 1800 census begins to break down age groups by years, with 1820 including occupations in agriculture, commerce, manufacturing.  The 1830 census includes the deaf and blind, but no occupations.  The 1840 again includes age groups for males, females, free colored persons and slaves, but also occupations of mining, agriculture, commerce, navigation of ocean, canals, lakes and rivers, learned professional engineers; pensioners for Revolutionary or military services; the deaf, dumb, blind and insane; data regarding one’s education, and those who cannot read or write.


The 1850 census is also a key census as it’s the first to list the name and age of every household member along with numbering the dwellings/houses and families of a town.  From 1850 through 1940, data may include the name of each household member, age, sex (which helps when a given name is not gender specific or is illegible), number of children born to a mother, marital status, years of marriage, state or country of birth, birth places, year of immigration, street address, occupations, value of the home, etc.


The 1880 census is free at both Ancestry.com and the LDS Family Search website.  The census for 1900 gives month and year of birth along with other family and professional data.  The 1910 through 1940 censuses are more in depth than previous.  Regardless, all census records contain a wealth of vital information on your ancestors!


COMING NEXT – Military Records

Original blog post at: Homespun Ancestors - Your Family Tree #8


Linda Roorda

Cemetery records are another invaluable resource for your ancestry research.  Historical societies also retain cemetery records, or transcriptions, of virtually all old gravestones for every cemetery, large or small, within any given county.  Unfortunately, I have typically found this work to have been done several decades ago (often from early to mid 20thcentury), and desperately in need of updating.  However, with our modern technology, a great resource not available when I first began my research journey in the late 1990s is the Find-A-Grave website.

Cemetery associations maintain each cemetery, retaining records for all burials.  They can often provide more information from their records on the deceased than that which is on a headstone, including full dates of birth and death, and family relationships with parents’ names and/or name of the spouse.  On the other hand, I’ve also seen where my trip to a specific cemetery gave me more data on a gravestone than was written in the historical society’s record.

It is also well worth making a trip to the actual cemetery whenever possible.  On one trip, I walked up and down virtually every row of a very old, but still used, cemetery north of Cobleskill.  Frustrated at not finding specific ancestors, I decided to give it one more try and got out of the car, facing a short steep slope.  Climbing to the top of the little knoll, I walked directly into an unusual circular plot.  Peering closely at the stones, I had that “aha” moment – I’d found exactly what I was looking for!  For there were my mother’s grandparents and great-grandparents!  As a teen, my Mom would drive her mother to this spot to place flowers on family graves, but she was unable to recall exactly where to find the plot.

While researching, it is helpful to know that a.e. (i.e. anno aetatis suae) on a gravestone is Latin for in the__  year of life versus age meaning year of age.  For example, you may see a stone with a date of death and age as follows:  Jan 10, 1834, a.e. 16y.  This indicates the deceased was in the 16thyear of life; but, in reality, was 15 years old on the previous birthday before death.  You may also see the deceased’s date of death with age as follows:  d. June 15, 1827, 10y 3m 5d.  From this date, you can count backwards to the date of birth, i.e. b. March 10, 1817.  Take photos of gravestones for documentation, along with proof of the location of the stone(s) and exact cemetery of burial.

In the case of very old stones from the 1700s and 1800s, I have done rubbings – either with washable chalk to make the eroding chiseled letters stand out, or by pencil rubbing on paper lain atop the sunken lettering when nothing else was available.  The latter gave me data on my ancestor, John Caldwell McNeill, that was not in the cemetery records.  I knew he was a sergeant in the New Hampshire Line, serving at Bunker Hill as per his pension file; but, a separate gravestone revealed these barely discernable words etched in stone by doing a pencil rubbing on paper:  “Corp.1, Co.1, N.Y. Regt. Rev War.”  Questioning what he was doing in a New York regiment, I spent the money to purchase his full  Revolutionary War pension application file.

I then read historical books about the Revolutionary War for their collateral documentation of the era.  Reading “The Spirit of Seventy-Six,” author Morris Commager confirmed that the New Hampshire unit was asked to join the above-noted New York regiment on a mission to Canada.  Records researched by Commager detailed how the men were captured, stripped of all clothes and possessions, and imprisoned on an island in the St. Lawrence with many soldiers dying.  The remaining soldiers were bought back in a cartel by Benedict Arnold and released to serve out their enlistment, confirmed by other reputable sources, including “Benedict Arnold’s Navy” by James L. Nelson – a really great read!  This all substantiated affidavits in John C.’s pension file and the story in a New Hampshire county historical book about the capture and release as celebrated annually by John C.’s friends and relatives who remained in Londonderry, NH after the Revolutionary War when he removed to Carlisle, Schoharie County, NY.

Although rare, cemetery records and gravestones do occasionally contain conflicting dates or errors.  A death certificate, if available, would be the more accurate record, along with collateral records.

I have personally seen few errors in gravestone data, but one stands out as part of my documented and published research thesis.  My ancestor, Lt. Timothy Hutton (b. 1746) had a nephew Lt. Timothy Hutton (b. 1764), both serving in military units in New York.  A monument to my Lt. Timothy Hutton at Carlisle Rural Cemetery in Carlisle, Schoharie Co., NY credits his service under Capt. Gross of Willett’s Regiment in the Revolutionary War.

On checking roster records, two Lt. Timothy Huttons are listed in Col. Marinus Willett’s Regiment at the same time – one in Capt. Gross’s company, the other in Capt. Livingston’s.  Purchasing military records of my ancestor, with my editor supplying a copy of affidavits for the younger Hutton, provides our proof.  This documentation notes both Lt. Timothy Huttons served in Willett’s NY Regiment.  But, Lt. Hutton b. 1764 stated in affidavits he served under Capt. Gross, with other documentation noting he died in New Jersey, while his uncle, my ancestor, Lt. Hutton b. 1746, though not stating which captain he served under, is thus presumed to have served under Capt. Livingston as per the unit’s roster records.  My Timothy Hutton (b. 1764) was documented serving in Schoharie County, NY, settling and dying in Carlisle, my mother’s home town.  And so I proved my Lt. Timothy Hutton did not serve under Capt. Gross as per his cemetery monument, but rather his nephew of the same name did.  With both men sharing the same name, it’s no wonder the kind folks who put up his monument were confused!

There has also been a concerted effort over the last several years to put cemetery records online, a great aid in research, but you should still document and prove data accuracy.  As the years pass, more and more data is making its way online than was available before 2000 when I began my research.  Again, check out the Find-A-Grave website.  Through the kindness of many people, photos are taken of gravestones, and, along with data written on the monuments, are placed online.

Obviously, not every grave is to be found online, nor is all information and family data accurate as I recently discovered from someone’s erroneous tie to my paternal family which I personally knew to be absolutely false.  I emailed the contact person and did not receive a reply back; I don’t know if it was ever corrected online as I’ve not gone back.  But, admittedly, it is very rewarding to find a photo of just the grave you’ve been searching for!

COMING NEXT:  Census Records


"Homespun Ancestors is written by Linda Roorda. To see more, visit her site HERE

Linda Roorda

In researching your ancestors, you will hit brick walls – guaranteed!  When you do, think about who the most recent known ancestor was.  Remember that we discussed previously how the Dutch used a specific naming pattern.  Each child was named after the grandparents, alternating back and forth to include each of the child’s grandparents, great-grandparents, then aunts, uncles and parents.  Other ethnic groups, including the Germans, often used a similar pattern, but did not follow it as consistently.  By searching census records of the community where a particular family was known to live, I found the probable paternal grandfather of a friend’s ancestor.  It appeared her ancestor’s middle name was that of the probable grandfather, thus creating a crack in her brick wall.

Often, names changed spelling over time depending on the speller’s knowledge, or were changed to reflect the pronunciation.  Your surname today may not be how it began a few centuries ago.  My maternal family name of Tillapaugh began as the Swiss Dällenbach, being changed in the early 1800s among several lines, including the oft-used Dillenbeck/Dillenbach, etc.  Another example is the German Jung, pronounced and often Americanized as Young.  From the 1600s New Amsterdam, my Dutch VanKouwenhoven morphed into Conover.  My French DeGarmeaux from the Albany area became DeGarmo, while my German Richtmyer became Rightmyer in other lines.

Another example of surname change is found in my Revolutionary War families.  The original Swiss Dübendorffer became Diefendorf after arrival here in the 1730s.  My ancestor Georg Jacob Diefendorf remained loyal to the crown during the Revolutionary War.  However, his son, a staunch patriot, took his mother’s surname (his own middle name) as his new surname, becoming John Diefendorf Hendree, to disassociate himself from his father.

Paying close attention to details helped me find the marriage date for my ancestors Christina Dingman and Jacob Kniskern.  Sorting book by book in one row of the genealogy section of the Steele Library in Elmira, I saw a tiny church book for Montgomery County, New York.  This is a typed transcription of original handwritten church records.  Having seen these church records online, I knew exactly what I was holding.  Searching page by page, I saw the name of “Conescarn.”  Suddenly, I realized that I was looking at the phonetic spelling for the old pronunciation of Kniskern; now the “K” is silent.  I’d discovered what no one else had recognized before – my great-great-grandparents’ marriage date of October 17, 1840!

The Kniskern name began as Genesgern in churchbooks from the 1500s in Germany.  It is one of the oldest documented pedigrees of any New York 1709/10 Palatine emigrant according to the author Henry Z. Jones, Jr. in his personal email to me.  See his two-volume set “The Palatine Families of New York 1710”.  Mr. Jones and his assistants went to Germany and systematically searched records in every town and old church to document as many Palatine-region emigrant families as possible to provide solid documentation for today’s researchers.

When researching old families, it is also helpful to know that Sr. or Jr. and Elder or Younger do not necessarily indicate father and son as it does today.  Often, this title was used to differentiate between extended relatives or unrelated men within the same community who happened to have the same name.  With the old naming pattern, it was not uncommon to find “umpteen” men and boys by the same name in town and church records.  Without the title or other differentiation, it can be difficult to place them correctly in their family of origin, though key is noting the birth parents and baptismal sponsors.

Census takers frequently wrote a surname based on their own spelling ability, which, I discovered, was often quite atrocious!  Be flexible.  As you search records, try various spellings as names were often written as they sounded.  That fact alone can make all the difference in finding your ancestor.  Even my McNeill name, consistently signed by the oldest family members with two “l”s, was spelled variously on census records as McNial, McNeal, McNiel or simply McNeil (without the second “l”).  Several years ago, I transcribed the online 1810 census for Carlisle, Schoharie County, New York and submitted it for posting on the county genweb page.  Some names were very misspelled; but, being familiar with many of Carlisle’s families from research, I understood the intended names and put them in parentheses.

However, in hitting your brick wall, do not jump hastily into accepting published genealogies.  If there is evidentiary proof with solid documentation (like I provided for my published genealogies in footnotes) from reputable journals or well-documented books, then you should be able to accept them.  But, again, beware as I found false leads, fake ties, and erroneous data which I proved wrong with personal old-fashioned research, part of my published thesis.  It pays to put in the extra effort to prove your data.

I also want to stress that I do not readily accept anyone’s claim of family ties to famous historical folks, Mayflower ancestors, or royalty – nor should you.  Maybe you truly are connected, but I want to see sound documentation, preferably baptismal, marriage and death records, or cemetery records for every generation backward.  Also know that most well-documented earliest generations in America begin in the 17th or 18thcenturies.  Viable records previous to those centuries are not always available.

Since Ancestry.com has records from Britain, Ireland, Wales and several European countries, it is a valuable subscription resource.  You can also hire one of their professionals should you feel the need for their assistance.  A general search online for records from a particular nation may also be helpful as I found a reputable website with documented birth and marriage records from the Netherlands for my grandmother’s lineage.  I purchased the book on my paternal ancestry documented by a distant relative who just happens to work in the genealogy division of The Hague.  Though her work can definitively trace my paternal ancestry only to the early 18th century, I’m satisfied.  And I was amazed to see the photo of a Dutch constable, a brother of my great-grandfather, who looked uncannily like my Dad!

Some of your best resources can be found in books containing transcripts of original documents and/or in legitimate family records (Bibles, baptism, marriage and death records) placed at historical or genealogical societies.  Unless you know that what you hold in your hands is truly legit, do like I did to prove my lineage beyond a doubt – tackle the hard work yourself to prove every ancestor.  Yes, it’s time consuming and takes years, but the end result is truly worth the effort!

Again, many genealogies were written in the past with ties to royalty and early American Mayflower ancestors which have since been proven false.  Several resources regarding what to look out for are available at the following websites:

LDS Family Search “Fraudulent Genealogies.”

Genealogy.com’s “Fraudulent Lineages” by Nicole Wingate.

Genealogy’s Star blog:  “Genealogy as a Fraud.”


Tips on accuracy of research in “Bogus Genealogies” by George C. Morgan.

COMING NEXT:  County Historical and Genealogical Society holdings.


"Homespun Ancestors is written by Linda Roorda. To see more, visit her site HERE

Linda Roorda

County historical and genealogical societies are another great repository of data to aid in your research.  Among their resources are town and county historical books which often include brief lineages of early settlers, donated private family records, old family Bibles or transcripts of family data, transcribed census records, church and cemetery records, microfilm of various records including old newspapers, donated copies of wills or abstracts of wills, maps, rare books, donated specialty items, published family genealogies, and unpublished family manuscripts which can often be as accurate as any published composition, and so much more.

But, please keep in mind that any family genealogy is only as good as the family’s recollections and the ability to provide solid documentation, so personal footwork is still necessary to clarify or prove data if source documentation cannot be provided.

If you know where an ancestor lived, contact the corresponding county historical society.  You might be amazed at what may have already been researched, or what the folks can help you with, and how well they can point you in the right direction.  There is a research and copy fee at a historical society, though it is always less expensive to do your own research on the premises.  When I researched in the early 2000s, an average fee of $25/hour was charged by most societies to have their staff do your research (may cost more now).  I personally traveled to several historical societies; but, since that was not always feasible, I also paid for some to do my research.

Visit the online website for the town and county historical societies where you wish to obtain data.  If you want them to research, write a brief letter of request, include their base fee as listed online, and a self-addressed stamped envelope along with a brief description of information you seek.  As they respond in the order requests are received, it may be a few weeks before you receive a reply noting your request for research has been placed.

By clarifying data on a family record form filed at both Tioga and Schoharie, NY county historical societies, I proved someone wrongly placed a daughter in my McNeill family.  I wrote the submitter for information, but never received a reply.  There were two McNeil(l) families in Schoharie County.  Ruth McNeil married Matthew Lamont, removing to Owego, Tioga County, New York by 1825.  Matthew and his son, Marcus Lamont(e), purchased Hiawatha Island east of Owego on June 23, 1830 and operated a ferry across the Susquehanna River.  Marcus Lamont(e)’s son, Cyrenus McNeil Lamont, purchased the island in 1872 and ran the famous Hiawatha Hotel until 1887.

I proved Ruth (McNeil) Lamont did not belong to my McNeill family as had been listed on the above family history form.  Instead, I believe she was more likely the daughter of John and Ruth (Reynolds) McNeil, and thus named for her mother.  John and Ruth McNeil were originally of Vermont as per that McNeil family history writeup which I purchased from Montgomery County Dept. of History & Archives.  Per her sons’ census records, Ruth was born about 1782 in New York, the same year as was my John C. McNeill’s proven daughter, Betsey, his oldest child. Betsey was actually adopted by her mother’s childless sister per New Hampshire records.

Historical societies often have microfilm of local newspapers for birth, marriage, obituary and death notices.  Newspapers are a great source of collateral family data found in ads, public notices, or community event columns, i.e. the old-fashioned “gossip” columns which note the hosts and attendees of fashionable events.

Other important historical society holdings include old church records which provide vital information for births, baptisms, marriages, deaths and burials.  Old baptism records often include not only the name of the infant and parents, but the sponsors/witnesses who were usually relatives or close friends.  Churches do not provide this data, but many older church records have been donated to historical societies.  Often, you will find that someone with an interest in preserving this information took the time and effort to transcribe original handwritten records into a neatly typed report.  The transcriber certifies his/her work to be true and accurate, retaining all original errors.  These records may be in manuscript form or in a published book.

Town and county clerks’ offices are also invaluable resources.  Check the respective website for who to contact and what records they retain.  Marriage, birth and death records are typically kept by the respective town clerk where the event took place.  County clerk websites provide information on who to contact for genealogical research purposes.  The county clerk’s office maintains original state and federal census records, public land records (deeds, mortgages, liens, and maps), tax records, and wills, etc.  Family documentation can be found in wills (sometimes found at surrogate’s court), estate records for those who died intestate (without a will), inventories of estates, letters of administration, guardianships, etc.

Always note the source to document your facts, i.e. book, author, publisher, date, page, for example:

William E. Roscoe, History of Schoharie County, New York, 1713-1882. (Syracuse, NY: D. Mason & Co., 1882), p. 54.

John C. McNeill, Revolutionary War Pension File 20246.

Mortgage Book B, pgs. 69-70, Schoharie County Clerk’s Office, Schoharie, Schoharie Co., NY.

U.S. 1790 Census, Weare, Hillsborough Co., NH, p. 5, handwritten p. 332, line #9, NARA roll M637_5 (ancestry.com census record).

When appropriate, you may certainly state data was found on personal visit to a specific named cemetery (be sure to include the address), a personal conversation with someone specific, or in a box of letters found in Grandma’s attic.  But don’t forget to note date of visits and conversations, and full names, including maiden and married surnames.

By keeping solid research documentation, it will always be available to validate your findings as needed.  You will never regret the extra effort.

COMING NEXT:  Cemetery Records


"Homespun Ancestors is written by Linda Roorda. To see more, visit her site HERE

Linda Roorda

As you begin your research, document everything, every step of the way.  Keep some paper files readily accessible, but enter data in a genealogy computer program; I have an older Family Tree Maker version.  I also have “tons” of file folders filled with family research data gleaned from online resources and reputable books, emails with fellow researchers, data from visits to or purchased from historical societies, cemetery data from personal trips, etc.  And then there’s the shoebox filled with several hundred census records on 4×6 index cards.  I also found it helpful to paperclip together each family’s successive census records.

As we’ve been discussing, the key is to seek documentation from reputable sources.  Try to clarify data accuracy yourself as even the best author makes a mistake.  I was very frustrated when the new editor for the New York Genealogical and Biographical Record, who oversaw my McNeill article, rewrote part of my work and erred in what I had originally said – instead of asking me to rewrite.  Not being as familiar with the family as I was, she also tied some footnote documentation to the wrong facts, which I somehow overlooked in my final editing, necessitating a correction in a subsequent journal issue, making me look input.  I was not pleased, but kept my thoughts to myself.

As we said previously, it’s helpful to use a family history form, like these at Genealogy Search.   This website has numerous forms to record your data, including blank census forms.  When I first began dabbling in genealogy research, I didn’t have this resource available, or at least didn’t know where or how to find it.  I initially did everything the old-fashioned way by writing it all out on paper.  It wasn’t until I’d typed most family histories for my tome that I was introduced to Family Tree Maker, something which I highly recommend obtaining at the start.  It stores your data, connects extended family ties, tracks individuals and families, makes multiple descendancy charts from any progenitor, includes photos, and helps you make a nice family booklet.

To publish research as I did, you must prove new data (i.e. previously unpublished) or correct previously published data which you’ve proven is in error – both of which I did.  Every fact and every statement you make must be backed by solid documentation, with the source noted for each fact in a respective footnote.  If you make a habit of doing this right from the beginning of your research, you’ll at least prove your own lineage definitively without scrambling around for misplaced evidence.

Edit, edit and re-edit your story.  I cannot stress that enough.  Every so often I’d print out my research, using color-coded paperclips to track each family branch of one progenitor in said draft copy.  Focus on one ancestral line until it’s as complete as possible before moving on to the next line.  Believe me, it keeps you sane and less confused!  Back then, I had so many individual names and family ties in my head that I was a walking ancestral encyclopedia for a time… sharing a lot of early New Netherlands/New York history at the drop of a hat, and perhaps a bore to some listeners.

After gathering as much data as you can about known ancestors, a good place to start researching further is at Ancestry.com.  They have free 1880 census records available, but paying their annual subscription fee will provide access to a greater wealth of records.  As a member, at your fingertips will be census records from 1790-1940 (excluding the lost 1890 records), certain military records, city and national records, land records, international records, submitted family trees, baptisms, marriages, social security death index, phone book data, some books, etc.  These resources were vital to my research, thanks to the generosity of a distant cousin and dear friend, Mimi, who shared her Ancestry site with me.  You will also find family lineages posted at this website; but, be aware that submitted family data can definitely be incomplete and inaccurate as I also discovered.

Another good resource is Family Search, a free website by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.  Search this website for the free down-loadable Personal Ancestral File (PAF).  Their data includes 1880 census records, baptism and marriage records, death/cemetery records and submitted family data, etc.  Again, be cautious as not all data submitted by individuals is accurate.

Books and documents on microfilm can be ordered and viewed at a local LDS family history center.  Their resources can be invaluable as they include public records not readily available otherwise.  I used the Owego LDS church’s family history center, ordering several manuscripts/books on microfilm.  The editor for my McNeill article routinely flew to the main family history center in Salt Lake City, Utah to aid her editorial work, finding documentation from New Hampshire I had missed on prior researches.

Your local public library is also a great resource of interlibrary loans.  I cannot say enough about the helpful ladies at my local Spencer Library.  They ordered many genealogical and historical books for me.  These books included invaluable town and county backgrounds from New York and other states from their earliest beginnings, including generational documentation on early families.

Elmira’s Steele Library is among those in New York State which maintains a viable genealogical section, and I availed myself of their records for hours many Saturday mornings.  Their great collection includes the “New York Genealogical and Biographical Record”, the journal which published my articles, the “New England Genealogical Record”, early New York county history books, transcribed manuscripts of early New York City records, many family surname genealogy books, books on how and where to search, histories of family names and how they changed over the centuries, D.A.R. lists, and so much more.

Another resource is Cornell University’s library system.  My fear of getting on campus and finding my way around prohibited any attempt at investigating their tremendous genealogical and historical collection.  Most of their material is held in the Olin/Kroch building.  Use Cornell University’s Olin Library website as a guide for searching.   Bear in mind that, just as I was able to do, many of Cornell’s genealogical holdings may be ordered through your town library.

COMING NEXT – Brick walls…


"Homespun Ancestors is written by Linda Roorda. To see more, visit her site HERE

Linda Roorda

Okay, let’s start researching.  As you ponder a few names in your ancestral tree, the burning question may be, “How do I start looking for ancestors I don’t even know about?”  Actually, the best way is to begin working backward from what you do know.  Start with your birth certificate to prove your parents.  Obtain copies of birth, baptism and marriage records, newspaper death notices or obituaries, and cemetery records of your near relatives.

Research can be an expensive endeavor and I will admit I’ve not done all I’d like to simply for that reason.  I’m able to join the DAR with about ten ancestors who served in the Revolutionary War; and, though I have a good deal of documentation, I’ve not been able to afford all that which is necessary for the DAR forms.  I know that I have DAR status with the evidence in my hand, and don’t need to prove that fact to an association.  Yet, even on a limited budget, you can accomplish a great deal like I did with the resources available – particularly as my initial online research of records for several years was done using the painfully slow dial-up internet service!

Make a list of your known and extended relatives.  Talk to the older folks and write down their memories and stories.  They are a wealth of information, and will be honored to have you ask.  But, again, research helps validate the truth from “stories” which might have snippets of reality amongst exaggerated stories passed down as family history.  Check out Cyndi’s List for a great listing of various types of charts and forms which can be printed off to help you keep records.

I also wish I had had an interest in knowing my family history when I was younger and my grandparents were still alive.  With my mom born as child 11 of 12 in a large farming family, her parents were long gone by the time I finally developed an interest.  And, since both her parents were only children, there’s a paucity of extended “rellies” for me to speak with. Yet, I’ve met other extended cousins and have enjoyed getting to know them while we compare our family lineage notes.

With her own family history interest, my mom recalled bits and pieces, but that’s why the original family tree mentioned in my first article was vital.  Working through the known three generations to prove their accuracy, my empty-nest project evolved into a 600-plus page manuscript.  I documented historical family backgrounds and descendants from church and cemetery records, historical records, census records, and books, etc. for every known surname branch.  Don’t research just the male lineage as some folks prefer; the women are equally as important to your heritage!  I even included research on the extended families as a record of their historical times and how families became intertwined.

If you are fortunate enough to have access to them, search old diaries and letters which may reference family members.  Old family Bibles often list family births, marriages and deaths, but not all do.  For example, an old Bible found in the brick McNeill house in Carlisle, NY by the current owners (with whom I became friends) held no data other than three McNeill obituaries, two of whom were known to be related.  Yet, the obits became key evidence in my search as one obit was for a Martha McNeill Tillapaugh Seber of Decatur, New York.  That little piece of paper gave credence to my theory that she is related!  She is the presumed daughter of Samuel McNeill as she fits the age of a female born 1814 on his census records, the only McNeill family in Decatur at that time.  This gave a descendant, who I was assisting, substantial probability for Martha’s birth family since his family papers noted Martha McNeill was born about 1814 in Decatur, thus lending credence to our being distant cousins.

The following also shares how one clue leads to another in research.  Based on a gut feeling, I purchased Robert McNeill’s War of 1812 pension application file after finding him on the 1820 Carlisle, New York census.  He lived very near my ancestor, John C. McNeill (typical of the old generations), and was listed on the War of 1812 muster rolls.

In pension application affidavits, Robert noted service at Watertown and Sackett’s Harbor, New York and as a guard of prisoners on a march to Albany.  He made no mention of service on any ship.  Sadly, I had to break the news to a descendant friend and cousin that Robert’s claim to be in a famous battle on Lake Erie during the War of 1812 was not backed up by documentation in any of his records.

Also, unfortunately, he served only 53 days of the required 60, making him ineligible for a pension.  However, additional key data found in his affidavits note Robert served in place of his brother, Samuel McNeill, of Decatur, Otsego County, New York, and that he, Robert, lived first at Carlisle, Schoharie County, New York.  Thus, he was born about 1794, after his parents removed from New Hampshire to New York.  Bingo!!  I now had two more presumed brothers of my known Jesse McNeill!  When Robert enlisted in September 1813, it appears he was about 18, unmarried, willing and able to serve for his brother, Samuel, who had a young family per the 1810 Decatur census and who presumably had farm crops to harvest.

By census records, we track Robert and family on the 1820 census in Carlisle, Schoharie County, New York, the 1830 census in Conesus, Livingston County, New York near his wife’s relatives, and the 1840 census in Dundee, Monroe County, Michigan.  After his first wife died, he lived near his sister’s family in Wayne County, New York where he remarried, moving his family back to Michigan per 1860 census.  I like to think of them as “frequent flyers” on the bustling Erie Canal, sailing Lake Erie from western New York to the frontier in southeast Monroe County, Michigan.  Curiously, his second wife is later found without Robert on census and cemetery records with their children in Wayne County, New York.  As Robert is listed on census records in the homes of his first wife’s children, dies and is buried in Michigan, his descendant and I have concluded that he and his second wife separated, but never divorced, as she died and is buried in Wayne County, New York.

There is so much to be gleaned by searching for and finding actual records.

Coming next:  Document everything, every step of the way!

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